Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ireland Trip/Sheen Falls Lodge

Frequent readers of this blog (both of you, that is) may recall that late last year, we took two out-of-town trips with the Hackknife progeny, one to California (which generated enough foodie material for a posting) and one to Disney World (which did not). Apparently deciding that domestic plane travel with a 2- and 5-year old wasn't challenging enough, we just returned from a jaunt to Ireland with said children and Mrs. Hackknife's mother. The trip statistics would probably strike fear and pity into most reasonably-level-headed parents: two trans-Atlantic flights, two stopovers at JFK in New York, nearly 800 miles driven in an overloaded British minivan (read: smaller than ours) on the wrong side of narrow Irish roads in all manner of weather conditions and terrain, one carsick child, one child afflicted with stomach flu (same child), one hotel with no elevator, and difficulties adjusting to European-style resource conservation measures (small hot water tanks, tiny washer/dryer, etc.). That being said, we actually had a pretty decent time and can bore you, er, share much video and pictures if you're so inclined to sit through the gory details.

From a dining perspective, I think I can summarize my Irish experience in two parts. Number 1, if there was a potato famine at one time in this country, it's apparently ended with vigor as the restaurants serve chips (fries) with pretty much everything you order, including often times breakfast. I enjoy chips as much as the next bloke (and these were usually the kind I prefer, thick-cut, not too done), but by the end of the week, I wouldn't have been disappointed if I didn't see another chip as long as I lived. Hackknifette, on the other hand, largely derived whatever nutrition she got over the 7-day period by consuming not much besides chips (in fact, she's enthusiastically promoting Ireland in her own blog as an ideal travel destination for fussy-eating toddlers). Number 2, the general quality level of Irish cuisine is surprisingly good for the most part. This may have something to do with the fact that we spent most of our trip in the southwest part of the country, which is more rural, has a reputation for higher-class dining/hotels, and has better access to top-shelf ingredients (such as fresh seafood, artisanal butter/cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb, etc.) than other regions. Regardless, we certainly didn't go hungry during our visit. One particular meal stands out enough that it warrants detailed mention later in this posting; however, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to simply call out some of the food highlights of the trip rather than attempt a blow-by-blow account of each and every meal.

Our first dinner after arriving in Kenmare (our base of operations for the trip) was at a Spanish place on Main Street (that's actually the street name, by the way) called Salvado's Bistro. Mrs. Hackknife and I enjoyed our respective entrees (venison and duck), but the standout dishes were two tapas plates, one a bruschetta-like bread dish, the other a braised pork belly. It certainly wasn't the best tapas I've ever had; however, this meal put us on notice that we shouldn't expect the greasy fish and chips-based Irish cuisine of the past on this trip (although there was still plenty of that to be had if we wanted it). We encountered many of the varied types of ethnic restaurants (Indian, Italian, Chinese, etc.) that we've come to expect here in the US, but my preference was to nosh on now-spiffed up traditional Irish stalwarts such as beef and Guinness pie (at Blarney Woolen Mills), local crab cocktail/brown bread (pub in Kenmare), lamb curry boxty (a boxty is a kind of thick crepe, eaten at Bricin Restaurant in Killarney - see Photo #1 above), mussels fresh from the bay (John Benny's Pub in Dingle - see Photo #2 above), and the ever-present full Irish breakfast (consisting of toast, roasted tomato, Irish sausages [AKA bangers], Irish bacon [which is more like a fried ham slice], fried potatoes or (yes) chips, white pudding [congealed pork fat mixed with oatmeal], and my personal new favorite, black pudding [congealed pig's blood mixed with filler], which actually sounds disgusting, but is quite delicious). Even the old fish-and-chips plate has gone upscale in some places, with Kenmare boasting its own high-end chippie shop on Main Street, offering three types of fresh fish (hake, cod, or whiting) caught in the local waters, deep-fried to order and served with chips of about 20 different varieties (alas, I didn't get to sample their wares as this was the night that Mrs. Hackknife and I had our fancy dinner chronicled below). We discovered that Wisconsinites were not the first to invent fried cheese, as we found several restaurants serving deep-fried Camembert (to great effect, I might add) as an appetizer. Lastly, I found that it's difficult to get a bad sandwich in this country, at least in the southwest part, whether it's a club sandwich in Askeaton or a tuna and corn salad on baguette from Prego in Kenmare (enthusiastically consumed as lunch during my 10-mile hike through the Irish backcountry) - the bread is fresher and the meats/cheeses are better quality than the slag that usually passes for everyday filler in sandwiches over here.

Not everything was great. We dined next door to Salvado's one night at a place called D'Arcy's Restaurant, not so much necessarily for the food, but more so for the background story. You see, the place's owner (Aileen D'Arcy) is the granddaughter of Tom Crean, an Irish explorer well-noted for his being an integral participant in three major Antarctic expeditions by the British early in the 20th Century. Messr. Crean actually survived both the ill-fated Scott expedition (where 4 explorers, including Scott, perished after discovering that Roald Admunsen beat them to the South Pole by a month) AND the ill-fated Shackleton expedition (where the entire party was stranded for over a year following a shipwreck). During the first debacle, he was forced to walk 35 miles alone to safety, thus saving two of his fellow explorers, while during the second, he and his comrades overcame survival challenges so numerous and daunting (enduring an Antarctic winter with few supplies, sailing the world's roughest ocean via small, homemade boat with minimal navigational aids, traversing the interior of a once-thought uncrossable island with makeshift climbing gear, etc.) that mere words fail to adequately convey the magnitude of his accomplishments. He pretty much gets my vote for toughest man that ever lived. Anyway, back to the restaurant. Understandably proud of his exploits, his granddaughter created a very cool separate banquet room in the restaurant with his vintage photos and equipment, where we fortunately were able to dine that night. Unfortunately, Hackknifette was unusually cranky, Hackknife Jr. was ill, and the duck-pumpkin risotto I had wasn't particularly memorable. Mrs. D'Arcy was gracious enough to sign the book chronicling the Shackleton expedition that I had hauled to Ireland in my carry-on luggage (I think I embarrassed her by asking - probably not the first time I've been thought of as a stalker), but all in all, it wasn't the best experience (we'll try again someday, no book this time).

Which brings me to the pinnacle of dining on our journey - our visit to Sheen Falls Lodge for dinner. This lodge (a Relais & Chateaux property) was actually our 2nd choice for fine dining on the trip, but became our best option as the Park Hotel Kenmare (which is more renowned) was still closed for the off-season. This turned out to be a happy accident. First of all, Sheen Falls Lodge is situated in a much more picturesque location, nestled between a short, but broad waterfall and Kenmare Bay (Park Hotel is practically in downtown Kenmare). Second, given that the lodge had just opened full-time that weekend for the new tourist season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. When we arrived for our dinner reservation, the hostess initially set us up in the bar for drinks and it became readily apparent that the restaurant patrons were going to be outnumbered by the waitstaff that evening (a Sunday night). The waiter brought our drinks, a bit of a spicy snack mix, and a very nice amuse bouche (fish samosa and a blue cheese/marmalade spread on a slice of brown bread) from the kitchen. Just when I thought we might actually be served the entire dinner in the bar, we were escorted to the main dining room, a French-styled salon with calming yellow walls, 18th Century decor, and a wood-burning fireplace roaring away. We were seated at the head table with views of the waterfall out one window and the bay out the other. Clearly, this was about the most elegant setting that we've yet encountered for a meal and most of the food hadn't even come out yet (not to mention the fact that we were completely alone in this magnificent salon save for the waiter and sommelier making occasional appearances to check on us - we were later told that we had the only reservation that evening). The seasonal menu (a blend of premium Irish ingredients prepared with French culinary techniques) didn't disappoint: after our amuse bouche, we resumed with a grouse and foie gras ballotine w/pineapple compote, followed by our first entree. I ordered a plate of smoked salmon and salmon tartare (caught from Kenmare Bay) w/creme fraiche, which was neatly presented on a black slate tray (see Photo #3 above), while Mrs. Hackknife had tagliatelle w/Kenmare Bay mussels. In between our two entrees, we were served a blackberry sorbet as a palate cleanser, then moved on to the final main course. For this, I chose quail w/onion marmalade and a thyme polenta (which was both artful and delicious - see Photo #4 above) and Mrs. Hackknife opted for black sea bass w/caviar foam (also delicious). We polished the meal off with a plate of 6 Irish cheeses (including Cashel Blue, Wexford Blue, and 4 others of the non-blue variety, ranging from mild/creamy to sharper/hard), which was large enough that we couldn't finish it, followed by chocolate mousse w/passionfruit sauce and a couple of mignardies (little housemade candies). All told, the bill came to a little more than $300, a total bargain considering the quality of the food, the attentive service (of course, the chefs in the kitchen were likely so bored that they were shooting dice between plating our courses), and the uniqueness of the experience, probably the dining highlight of our year so far and one that will be tough to beat down the road.

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