MacNean House & Restaurant,
Blacklion, Co Cavan;
WHAT is Neven Maguire doing right? After my third visit to MacNean House & Restaurant in ten years, I’ve learned to turn that question on its head. The fact is, Maguire is doing nothing wrong.
This chef and his restaurant — hidden in tiny Blacklion, Co Cavan — are a bona fide foodie phenomena. Others battled their way through recession by slashing prices and standards, but MacNean’s seems only to have improved. Dinner costs €72, Saturdays book-out months ahead, and customers travel from all over the island.
Maguire learned to cook at his mother’s apron strings, and in that respect, MacNean’s reminds me of the great family-run restaurants. Think of Arzak in San Sebastian (where Maguire did some of his training as a young chef), built-up and bettered by generations that pushed boundaries while remaining firmly rooted in their family heritage.
Here is a restaurant homely enough to be Blacklion’s beating heart, yet sophisticated enough to justify driving for several hours to get here.
Taking my seat in an opulent room filled with destination diners from as far afield as Wicklow and Belfast, I go for the ‘Prestige Menu’, a nine-course feast of Maguire’s signature dishes. It kicks off with an appetiser introduced as “Neven’s deconstructed prawn cocktail”.
Oh dear. Images of hubris and embarrassment flash before my eyes. They are dispelled, however, by the delicious medley that follows — a teacup of warm celeriac with nuts, an oyster glistening with froth, a spoon of tuna spotted with sesame seeds and a hint of wasabi mayo. The cocktail itself is a soft and snappy mouthful laid at the bottom of a glass, a chopped prawn enlivened by a cheek of marinated tomato and a touch of guacamole. From start to finish, it’s an excellent dish.
Next up is a tangy barbecued breast of quail, followed by a textbook rendition of scallops surrounded by various ‘textures’ of cauliflower. Crisps, tempura and purée all offer their own little detours, without distracting from the scallops. It’s beautifully balanced.
Breaking for a palate cleanser (macerated pineapple with mango sorbet), I get a chance to soak up the room. It’s a very comfortable, contemporary-classic space, styled with creams and plums, with bright artworks, crushed velvets and twinkling glassware.
Smart and charming staff know their choreography. Acoustics are spot-on, tables cleverly spaced, courses delivered at a delightful pace. A 200-strong wine list is comprehensive and fairly priced. It’s a well-oiled machine that hasn’t sacrificed its warmth.
Next up is a serving of Thornhill duck (‘from around a mile down the road’) — another of the signature dishes Maguire has nudged towards full expression over the years. Two thin strips of breast blush purple-pink alongside a sizzling wedge of foie gras and a wild mushroom polenta that tastes both woody and mealy. My knife sails through the meat.
It’s no secret that Maguire is seen as the Daniel O’Donnell of Irish food. But his rosy cheeks and family cookbooks belie the complexity of what’s on offer here — this is no celeb chef going through the motions. He’s ridiculously busy, but he still finds time to improve his food and chat to customers. That’s admirable.
The third act of the Prestige Menu features a selection of Irish cheeses, a pre-dessert pairing pineapple tiramisu with a souvenir-sized coconut crème br°lée, an actual dessert of white chocolate semifreddo with a scoop of blood-red blackcurrant sorbet, and a selection of playful and decadent petit fours — which I take with me in a box.
It’s not perfect. Parmesan truffle butter served with the breads is hard and cold, popping candy in desserts seems a little naff these days, a mini-brioche accompanying the quail is mediocre and unnecessary.
The quibbles are almost reassuring, however. Maguire’s Prestige Menu is nothing short of a high watermark in Irish destination dining, a culinary Greatest Hits that’s as close as it gets to one man’s passion, heritage and province on a plate.
THE TAB: The Prestige Menu costs €87pp, or €132 including wine.
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