Saturday, 5 September 2015

Restaurant Review: The Fatted Calf, Athlone, County Westmeath

I was saddened when the Fatted Calf, previously located in Glasson, County Westmeath, closed its doors early in the New Year and I have been eagerly waiting for it to re-open. I was a great fan of Head Chef Feargal O’Donnell’s food and regularly dined there as I only live a short distance away. I loved the easy informality of the Bar and Restaurant and over the years must have tried most of the dishes on the menu.

Now located on Church Street in the centre of the busy midlands town of Athlone, the reincarnated Fatted Calf is styled more as a formal restaurant rather than, as it was previously, a gastropub. The restaurant is light and spacious with a modern, contemporary feel which is welcoming even if it lacks the cosiness of a pub setting. As seems to be the fashion these days, there is an open kitchen where you can see your food being prepared and cooked.

Bread
I was pleased to see that there are many ‘old-favourites’ on the menu which is well-constructed and has something to suit everyone but cleverly manages to avoid being overly long and complicated. There is an obvious focus on the use of locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients which are used in an inventive way throughout the menu. The menu changes regularly to reflect the produce available and a ‘specials’ menu is also available.
 
I was dining with two old friends, so between us we were able to order a good cross-section of the food on offer. As we examined the menu and contemplated which dishes to choose we nibbled on the very tasty selection of breads that had been delivered to the table. The sourdough was wonderfully aerated with an open texture and was pleasantly chewy to eat whilst the soda bread was dark and damp and tasted heavenly when liberally spread with butter. Last but not least was a curry-flavoured bread which I absolutely loved and was something a little different. A flavoursome tapenade was served alongside the butter to accompany the breads and went particularly well with the sourdough.
 
Marrow Bones, Black Pudding
To start I ordered the Baked Beef Marrow Bones, Lisduff Black Pudding with Toasted Sourdough and Horseradish Aioli. Now be warned… this is a sizeable and very filling starter but every mouthful was pure joy. Rich and dark black pudding was crumbled and mixed with bone marrow before being stuffed back into the bones, baked and then served.  A small splodge of a subtly flavoured horseradish aioli topped each of the three stuffed marrow bones. The creaminess of the aioli was the perfect counterfoil to the richly flavoured black pudding. I love food where you can get stuck in and really enjoyed excavating the pudding out of the bones with the small spoon provided before spreading it on the toast and eating it. This was a top-notch dish.
 
Wontons
The Dublin Bay Prawn Wontons with Sweet Chilli and Ginger Jam which M chose were presented attractively piled up on top of each other along with some mixed salad leaves in a bowl. The wontons had been perfectly deep fried, without a hint of greasiness, to a very tempting light golden brown colour. The soft and sweet prawn filling was wonderful contrasted against the crispy exterior of the wontons and tasted delicious eaten with the simply dressed salad leaves. I particularly liked the Asian-inspired salad dressing which was sweet and exotically fragrant with just the right amount of chilli heat.
 
For her starter, C chose the Heir Island Scallops with Pulled Pork from the specials menu. Here two fantastically plump pan-fried scallops were served with a carrot puree and meltingly soft pulled pork. More unusually the dish also included warm, balsamic vinegar-macerated strawberries. Now in the interests of full-disclosure I should declare that I’m not really sure whether I’m a fan of macerated strawberries which I have eaten paired with meat in a couple of restaurants recently as I find their texture a little disconcerting. However, here they worked, mainly because they were served slightly warm and had been liberally seasoned with black pepper which cut through their acidity, giving them a savoury edge and served to accentuate the meatiness of the pulled pork. This was an unusual dish but we liked it.

Butter Roasted Chicken
Moving on to the main courses, I chose Butter Roasted Breast of Irish Farmhouse Chicken, Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese Gnocchi, Crisp Pancetta with Pecan & Spinach Pesto. Chicken is something I rarely choose when dining out as, like many households around Ireland, we eat a lot of it at home.  However, I was tempted by the gnocchi and also the pesto which sounded intriguing so decided to order it. I was not disappointed. This dish was a perfect example of how wonderful chicken can taste when a quality bird is cooked properly so that it retains its succulence. The gnocchi were amongst the lightest I have ever eaten and were perfect with the other elements of the dish. I loved the depth of flavour of the pesto and the combination of pecans with spinach was a revelation.
 
The Pan-Fried Fillet of Cod, Honey Mustard Parmentier Potatoes & Prawn and Chive Butter which M chose was another outstanding dish, where all the elements and flavours worked seamlessly together. The generous portion of cod was faultlessly cooked with a wonderfully crisp skin and soft, milky white flesh which came away in beautiful large flakes. The prawn and chive butter was a clever addition because it added another flavour dimension without engulfing or detracting from the flavour of the cod.
 
Cod
C’s main of John Stone Rib-Eye Steak was again chosen from the specials menu. The steak duly arrived cooked just rare as she had asked and came with a generous portion of hand-cut chips which were lovely and crisp on the outside and revealed a fluffy potato interior when you bit into them. An onion jam and garlic aioli on the side completed this dish. The onion jam was a little on the sharp side and with my sweet tooth I would have preferred something a little less assertive, but this did not detract from the overall dish and the delicious steak which had been lovingly cooked to order.
 
Main courses come with a choice of sides and the Summer Greens, and Baby New Potatoes we ordered were lovely but in many ways unnecessary as the main course dishes were generous and complete in themselves.
 
Steak
For dessert I chose the Strawberry & Salted Caramel Eton Mess, C chose the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Oreo Tart with Boulabán Vanilla Ice-Cream whilst M decided to go for the Cheeseboard. The Eton mess was everything that it should be and was a lovely concoction of broken meringues, cloud-like whipped cream and strawberries whilst the chocolate tart with its crushed Oreo crust encasing a layer of creamy peanut butter and topped with a rich chocolate ganache was an indulgent treat.
 
The cheeseboard comprised a quartet of Irish cheeses including Bellingham Blue, Cooleeney, Milleens and Mossfield Organic and was accompanied by a good selection of crackers, fresh fruit and a lovely fig chutney.  At €9.50, I thought it was great value for something that would have easily fed the three of us even without the desserts that two of us had also chosen.
 
Chocolate & Peanut Butter Tart
It’s worth noting that all our food was cooked without recourse to sous vide water baths and the like. Each dish was prepared with a real understanding of the particular requirements of the seafood/meat used. Everything was seasoned perfectly and we really felt that a lot of care had gone into the presentation and serving of each dish. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and will definitely return soon.
 
Our meal cost €179 for three courses for each of us which included a large bottle of sparkling water and a very enjoyable organic Malbec reserve which was full of deep plum and blackberry fruit flavours. We also had teas and coffee.
 
The Fatted Calf
Church Street
Athlone
County Westmeath
 
Telephone: 0906433371
Website: www.thefattedcalf.ie

This review first appeared in TheTaste.ie