Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Review: #AAFoodies Event at the Chef's Table in Sika Restaurant, Powerscourt Hotel, County Wicklow

In addition to the motoring and insurance services it provides, the AA is known for its annual Hospitality Awards which celebrate excellence in the food and hospitality industry in Ireland.

Chef's Table
The AA through its team of secret inspectors also assesses and awards those hotels judged to be providing the finest food in Ireland with Rosettes, on a scale of 1-5 Rosettes. Hotels who wish to take part can renew/sign up to the scheme and, when they do, they are automatically assessed. The AA Rosette scheme is an award, not a classification, recognising exceptionally high standards of culinary excellence in AA accredited properties across Ireland and the UK. Accreditation does not mean that Rosettes naturally follow and in fact, they are only awarded to those establishments that reach the required standards.

The scheme is a well-respected and popular way for the public, AA members and guidebook readers to get information on the best places to eat in Ireland and the UK. Unlike other assessment systems, the AA focuses solely on the quality and the excellence of the food served and not on the overall dining experience. Inspections happen throughout the year with any Rosettes that are bestowed being awarded soon after the actual assessments have taken place.

Always keen to embrace new ways of promoting the Irish food and hospitality sector, the AA set up the AA Foodies in recognition of the important role food/lifestyle bloggers, writers, social media and food enthusiasts play in highlighting Ireland’s vibrant food and restaurant culture.

Launched in September 2015 AA Foodies events take place regularly and have included functions in The Saddle Room Restaurant in the Shelbourne Hotel, Bellini’s Bar and Restaurant in the Maryborough Hotel and most recently at the Chef’s Table in Sika Restaurant in Powerscourt Hotel Resort & Spa which I attended. These events are a wonderful opportunity to get together with other food lovers to experience and pick up tricks-of-the-trade from some of Ireland’s top chefs.

Powerscourt was awarded Hotel of the Year at the 2015 AA Hospitality Awards last October and is considered one of Ireland’s premier five-star hotels. Housed in a stunning Palladian-style building in the grounds of the Powerscourt Estate, the hotel is renowned for its luxurious surroundings and exemplary service. The hotel’s  Sika Restaurant currently holds two AA Rosettes which reflects its excellent, precise cooking and use of quality ingredients.

Goat's Cheese Salad
As you approach Powerscourt Hotel, you know that you are going somewhere special and I was really looking forward to meeting the other invited guests and to our meal at the Chef’s Table. On the night we visited, we were treated to an outstanding six-course truffle-themed tasting menu devised by Head Chef Peter Byrne with accompanying wines selected by George, the hotel’s resident sommelier.

The Chef’s Table is located in the restaurant’s kitchen facing the pass so we had an unfettered view of Peter Byrne and his brigade of chefs at work preparing our meal. The most astonishing thing was that despite the common portrayal of restaurant kitchens as places where tempers are short and voices are raised, the atmosphere in Sika was noticeably calm albeit everyone was working away with a sense of focused purpose.

Before proceedings kicked off, Peter Byrne passed around a black wooden box containing a number of truffles. With a heady aroma that was irresistible, I still found it hard to believe that these dozen or so squash-ball sized delights were valued at over €900. Some of these truffles were to find their way on to our plates of food as the night progressed.

Foie Gras
In addition to the truffles, most of the ingredients used during our meal were sourced locally with an emphasis on their seasonality. As each course was served AA Inspector Declan Connors highlighted aspects of the food that would be assessed if an inspection was taking place. This was hugely interesting and extremely informative and made each of us really think about and consider the food that we were eating rather than just wolfing it down.

The meal was truly wonderful with each dish managing to showcase the many ways in which truffles could be used.

After nibbling on some delicious breads and Gruyère and Truffle Gougères we were presented with a Truffled Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Toasted Hazelnuts which arrived piping hot in a small but beautiful glass bowl. This was easily one of the best soups that I have ever eaten as it managed to taste rich and indulgent but was also silky and light on the palate at the same time. The flavour of the truffles came through wonderfully but didn't overpower the artichokes with their underlying earthy-sweetness. Toasted hazelnuts and an artichoke crisp completed the dish.

The accompanying wine a Crios de Susana Baldo Torrontes from Argentina was fresh and aromatic with a smooth texture in the mouth which made it an ideal pairing for the soup.

The next two courses were also excellent and were both beautifully presented. The  Knockdrinna Goat’s Cheese, Blood Orange Jelly, Beetroot & Charred Cucumber was delicate to look at and packed full of interesting ingredient combinations whilst the Terrine of Foie Gras, Radish, Herb Salad with Toasted Brioche was rich and indulgent and included an excellent slice of brioche. It may sound strange to specifically highlight the toast but it was exceptional.

My Wild Halibut, Savoy Cabbage, Stuffed Chicken Wing & Truffled Cream was perfectly cooked with clean distinct flavours. I particularly liked the restrained treatment of the cabbage which had been finely shredded and cooked with just a hint of butter. I thought the Endrizzi Masetto Bianco from Italy with its complex bouquet and aromas of exotic fruits was an interesting wine pairing which ultimately worked well.

Wild Halibut
Our final savoury course - the Sirloin of Irish Rose Veal, Buttered Leek, Chanterelle Mushroom, Artichoke & Truffled Potato Purée was delightful and included the most decadent potato purée ever to pass my lips. If I ever win the lottery that mash is the type of food that I will eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner! It was superb.

The meal finished on a high with a dessert of White Chocolate Mousse, Orange & Truffle Ice-Cream. In many respects this was the most controversial dish of the night and we all spent ages debating whether truffles worked in a dessert or not. I loved the truffle ice-cream and thought that it was lovely against the sweetness of the white chocolate mousse and the slight acidity of the orange. Others weren't as convinced but we all agreed that it was an interesting use of the truffles.

Rose Veal
This was one of the most thought- provoking meals that I ever eaten and a dining experience that I don't think I will ever forget. I feel truly privileged to have been invited along by the AA and I enjoyed every single moment. I understand that there are some great events in the pipeline and as new AA Foodies are always welcomed I would recommend signing up soon.

Further information on the AA Foodies is available from http://www.theaa.ie/foodies/aa-foodies-sign-up/

Sika Restaurant
Powerscourt Hotel Resort & Spa
Powerscourt Estate
County Wicklow
Telephone: 012748888

Petits Fours

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Restaurant Review: McLoughlin's Restaurant, Roganstown Hotel & Country Club, Swords, County Dublin

Set in mature gardens, Roganstown Hotel & Country Club is an elegant country-house hotel which is located on the outskirts of Swords, close to the airport in North County Dublin and within easy reach of the city centre. I am always on the lookout for new restaurants to try and having heard good reports about the food on offer in Roganstown, I decided that a visit was in order. The hotel offers two dining options; - bar food and a more formal dining experience in McLoughlin’s Restaurant under Head Chef Tom Walsh.

Pina Colada
The high-ceilinged dining-room is extremely spacious and manages to avoid feeling like a hotel function room by the clever use of colourful art-works on the walls. The tables are beautifully dressed with white table linen and stylish cutlery whilst ambient lighting creates a relaxed and comfortable ambiance.
We decided to kick off our meal with an aperitif from the cocktail menu which contained a small selection of the classics. I decided on a Pina Colada (€8.50) which was made with rum, Malibu, fresh cream and pineapple juice whilst John, my dining companion for the evening, chose a Long Island Iced Tea (€10.50). Both drinks were mixed well but John’s with its boozy hit of vodka, gin, rum, Cointreau, tequila and fresh lime juice, topped with Coke was - quite understandably - particularly good.
Bread Selection
The restaurant offers a dinner menu at €32.50 for three courses but a five-course tasting menu is also available. This allows the diner choose a starter, main and dessert from the dinner menu and is supplemented with an amuse bouche and pre-dessert. Although unusual, this format worked well for us and offered an element of choice that you don’t normally get with tasting menus.
Breads – a White and a Brown Soda were first to arrive and were accompanied by a generous amount of butter. This was followed by an amuse bouche of intensely flavoured Minestrone with Truffle Oil. Served in a small espresso cup the soup was packed full of complex, feisty flavours that lingered in a most satisfying way. Soups are often a way of using up vegetables and other bits and pieces that are hanging around but this was well-considered and tasted delicious. We both loved it.
My starter of Tortellini of Salted Cod & Lobster, Cauliflower Purée and Spinach with a Champagne Sauce was a beautiful looking dish. The pasta had been expertly made with an unusual filling of salt cod and lobster which sounded like it shouldn’t work but was excellent. Once again, punchy flavours were to the fore but they had been handled in a sensitive and measured fashion to create a plate of food that pleased on many levels. A perfectly seared scallop completed and was a nice touch.
John’s Parfait of Goat’s Cheese, Pine Nut & Basil, Pear & Mustard Purée and Poached Baby Pear was also attractively presented with a lovely combination of ingredients that came together harmoniously on the plate. The parfait was surprisingly light with a lovely tangy freshness that paired well with the pear and mustard purée whilst the slivers of poached pear provided juiciness that brought everything together. This dish appeared simple but revealed hidden delights with each mouthful.
My next course - Saddle of Venison, Pistachio, Purple Potato Purée, Trumpettes, Potato Maxim, and Chocolate Sauce was insanely good. Granted, I found the appearance of the purple potato purée a little disconcerting but it tasted wonderful and was a perfect partner for the venison with its almost cheeky coating of bright green pistachio nuts. The venison was cooked medium/rare and had a gentle gamey flavour which is often sadly lacking in much of the venison served up in restaurants these days. A sauce made using dark, bitter chocolate complemented the venison, highlighting its subtle taste. The inclusion of lightly pickled mushrooms and sweet caramelised onions helped to mitigate the overall richness of this dish and I had no complaints. This was clever, experimental cooking and I loved it.
Daube of Beef
John’s Braised Daube of Beef, Baby Irish Carrots & Leeks and Forest Mushroom Purée was comfort-food heaven. Classically made with the ‘daube’ which comes from the shoulder/back of the animal and is an inexpensive cut which benefits from long, slow cooking until the meat is meltingly tender. Carrots gently roasted until lightly caramelised and wonderfully sweet were the ideal partner for the beef with its rich sticky sauce whilst the mushroom purée grounded everything with its earthiness. I couldn’t have loved this dish more if I had tried.
A pre-dessert of White Chocolate Ganache with Pistachio Mousse came simply presented in a shot glass and was creamy and as light-as-a-feather. It dissolved in the mouth in a most agreeable way and was a lovely way to lead into the final course.
White Chocolate & Pistachio Mousse
Both desserts were excellent and by way of contrast to the courses that they followed were presented simply. My Frozen Hazelnut Parfait, Frosted Berries with Caramel Reduction is a new item on the menu and was light after the intensely flavoured food we had already eaten. John’s Pear Tarte Tatin and Buttermilk Sorbet was simple superb! Here crisp puff pastry was topped with flawlessly cooked pears in a sweet and buttery caramel sauce. The accompanying sorbet was incredibly refreshing and somehow managed to intensify the flavour of the pears. I was impressed to learn that the puff pastry had been made in-house and I could tell that a good amount of butter had gone into making it. This was the dessert of dreams and I found it deeply satisfying.
I was very taken with my meal in McLoughlin’s restaurant. Tom Walsh’s food is self-assured and he is obviously a chef who likes to push boundaries but this is never at the expense of food itself and he instinctively seems to know when to stop. Flavours are robust and ingredients are often combined in a creative and interesting way.
Hazelnut Parfait
Service throughout our meal was delivered enthusiastically and added to our enjoyment of the meal.
McLoughlin’s Restaurant at Roganstown is open for dinner seven days a week and also serves an Early Bird Menu served from 5.30pm to 7pm (Sunday to Thursday).
Opening hours:
Dinner – Monday to Sunday: from 5:30pm last orders at 10pm,
Sunday Lunch: 12:00pm to 7:00pm
McLoughlin’s Restaurant
Roganstown Hotel & Country Club
Naul Road
County Dublin
Telephone: 018433118

This article first appeared in TheTaste.ie
Pear Tarte Tatin

Monday, 7 March 2016

Review: Afternoon Tea in Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare

I love nothing more than sitting down to afternoon tea. It is, without doubt, one of the most pleasant ways of whiling away a couple of hours. Every-now-and-again I like to find the time to relax in elegant surroundings and enjoy a leisurely cup of tea along with a variety of sweet and savoury treats. My daughter Emma shares this enthusiasm, so when I recently suggested visiting Dromoland Castle in County Clare to have afternoon tea there, she jumped at the opportunity to join me.
Tiered Stand
Dromoland Castle is an imposing Gothic building set in beautifully maintained estate grounds. Dating from 1651, the turreted castle was the ancestral home of the O’Briens of Thomond who were descendents of Brian Ború one of the High Kings of Ireland. These days the property is one of Ireland’s premier five-star hotels and over the years has played host to many famous guests including President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
Named after a kitchen maid who worked at the castle for many years, Mrs. White’s Afternoon Tea is served in both the Gallery Lounge and the Cocktail Bar. It is extremely popular so booking in advance is advised. Access to the both the lounge and bar is down a network of meandering corridors but our destination was well sign-posted so we easily found it. Blinking in wonder at the magnificent crystal chandeliers, we were led to our table in the Cocktail Bar. Outside the window we could see some visitors enjoying a ride around the spectacular grounds in a old-style pony and trap.
Tarry Lapsang
The afternoon tea consists of a selection of freshly made sandwiches, cream cakes, fruit tart and fresh pastries. Guests are also treated to a slice of the Dromoland fruit cake and warm fruit scones with clotted cream and preserves. Served on the prettiest of fine china plates, everything about the Dromoland afternoon tea screams luxurious elegance.
To kick off proceedings I decided to have a glass of Champagne while I considered my choice of tea. A good selection of loose leaf teas is available including the eponymous Dromoland House Blend. Although tempted by the exotic-sounding Wild Cherry Ceylon, I eventually settled on the Tarry Lapsang from the Fujian province of China. Famous for its smoky aroma Lapsang Souchong has a lovely deep golden colour. This was a very good example and with its almost cool smoky flavour was wonderfully refreshing. I was delighted with my choice. Whilst I sipped on my tea, Emma lost herself in a decadent cup of Hot Chocolate which she proceeded to pile high with the mini-marshmallows served alongside it.
Sandwich Selection
I love the moment during an afternoon tea when the cake-stand arrives packed full of delicious goodies and we were not disappointed with what we were served in Dromoland which was packed full an astonishing array of sandwiches, cakes, pastries and scones.
The sandwiches were amongst the finest I’ve ever had and were visually very appealing. Too often sandwiches can be hit-and-miss with far more effort and attention given to the cakes and pastries that are served as part of an afternoon tea. These showed creative flair and included a number of interesting fillings served on a good range of breads. Classics such as an Egg Mayonnaise on White Bread, and an open Cucumber & Cream Cheese sandwich were there but the selection also included one topped with Hummus and Black Olive Tapenade which was delicious. I particularly liked the Smoked Salmon sandwich which was served with generous chunks of the fish on a disc of brown soda bread. A Ham & Cheese sandwich was also delicious with its filling of baked ham, brie and chutney but my favourite was probably the Mixed Salad Sandwich Roll which had been well-seasoned and was incredibly flavoursome.

Vanilla Cheesecake
We then moved on to the Fruit Scones. I have eaten many scones during my lifetime and these were amongst the best that I have had. Served warm, they were light and fluffy with just the right amount of sweetness. Topped with a generous amount of Clotted Cream and Raspberry Jam, I savoured every single mouthful. My Granny was evangelical when it came to scones and would refuse to eat any that did not reach her exacting standards. She would have loved the scones in Dromoland for they were truly outstanding.
After a short break, during which time my tea was refreshed, we moved on to the final tier of the cake-stand. Playfully presented, the cakes and pastries were beautiful to look at and we couldn't wait to try them. A bite-sized Fresh Fruit Tart with its crème pâtissière filling and topping of fresh berries was excellent and I thought that the Vanilla Cheesecake was wonderfully light and creamy. However, for me, the Lemon Tart was the stuff that dreams are made of. Lemon tarts are technically quite tricky to perfect but this one with its crisp shortcrust pastry base and lovely tangy lemon custard/curd filling was magnificent.

I was also impressed by the Dromoland Fruit Cake which was moist and packed full of dried fruit and had a tender crumb. We finished with a skillfully made Macaron with Chocolate Ganache.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon tea in Dromoland Castle and both of us agreed that it had been a wonderful and relaxing experience. Service was friendly and extremely attentive throughout. I found the staff to be knowledgeable about the food and, in particular, the teas on offer.
Mrs White’s Afternoon Tea costs €24 per person while the Champagne Afternoon Tea costs €36 per person. A smaller Light Afternoon Tea is also available at €18 per person.
Dromoland Castle
County Clare
Telephone: 061368144
This article first appeared in TheTaste.ie
Lemon Tart