Dining with an elegant Lady

Lady Helen Restaurant, Mount Juliet, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny; 056-7773000; mountjuliet.ie.

MOUNT JULIET is on a roll. Its Lady Helen restaurant has been festooned with awards, winning three AA rosettes, a Michelin star and ‘restaurant of the year’ at the Good Food Ireland Awards. It’s the new king of Kilkenny.

Despite all the gongs, the hotel’s greatest trick has been to loosen up.

In the Celtic Tiger, locals envied guests with the mega-bucks to closet themselves away in an 18th century manor built by the Earl of Carrick for his wife, Juliana. Tiger Woods prowled the fairways. The 1,500-acre estate felt like a privileged enclave, an ultra-exclusive stay.

It still is — only it feels more accessible. Day visitors can play golf, book spa treatments, go horse riding or visit its markets. The ‘taste of Wednesday’ offer bundles B&B with an eight-course tasting menu at the Lady Helen restaurant, from €130pp.

Even if you don’t stay over, Wednesday is the hot ticket. The Lady Helen’s a-la-carte is €65pp for three courses, but on Wednesday its tasting menu is reduced from €75pp to €55pp (with matching wines at €29pp). For an experience of this calibre, that’s a bargain. We began with quail, served rare and tender, with red chicory leaves, apple, truffle aioli and a cromesquis (similar to a small croquette dipped in caul fat) of confit leg. Paired with a fruity Mâcon-Lugny, from Bouchard Père et Fils, it was a promising mix of ambition and restraint — the quail’s plush pinkness chiming with the decadent cromesquis, bitter leaves and lip-smacking velouté. The portion size was perfect, if not truly beautiful.

Another course was thick slices of Challans duck, served with bulgur wheat, ras el hanout (a North African spice mix), rhubarb, turnip and yoghurt. A paired glass of Chinon cabernet franc tickled the spices nicely, and I enjoyed how the coolness of the yoghurt and citrus notes in the jus pushed the envelope of what could otherwise have been a merely indulgent dish.

Elements and ingredients were explained — as were the fanciful amuse bouche, mid-course, pre-dessert and petit fours punctuating the tasting menu. A knowledgeable young head waiter explained the wine matches.

The Lady Helen’s dining rooms are as impressive as you’d expect. There are horsey paintings, gilded frames, white linen and silver service. Our feet sank into the carpets. Views roll down to the River Nore. Tall ceilings and swirling plasterwork created a sense of timeless country luxury — you half-expected Juliana herself to come floating through the room.

But the big surprise was the young blood running through this old-school set-up.

Cormac Rowe and Ken Harker (executive and head chefs, respectively) exuded youthful dynamism. Our boyish head waiter seemed shy and nervous, at first.

Over the course of the meal, however, he revealed not only an intimate knowledge of the food and wine, but himself as an individual who believed wholeheartedly in what his kitchen was trying to achieve.

He introduced a dish of cod with smoked eel, potato, lemon, parsley and hazelnut as new to the tasting menu, for example — and invited our feedback. It was a pretty composition, garnished with titbits of nut and eel, set alongside pureed potato and paired with a Chenin Blanc. The textures combined nicely, but what was most exciting was the sense of a work in progress.

Clearly, this was accomplished cooking. Execution at the Lady Helen may not yet hit the polished heights of Michelin star colleagues like Chapter One or The Cliff House, but my lasting impression is of a young team hitting their stride, investing traditional surroundings with creativity and curiosity, of bright talents willing to ask questions and try new things.

What’s thrilling is not where they are now — but where they could be in two or three years.

A few blips need to be ironed-out. On our visit, for instance, staff were visibly flustered by the tardiness of several diners (“some people can’t arrive on time,” we were told).

The polish will come, however — it has to, if customer experience is to match the kitchen’s ambition.

Dessert brought baked lemon cream and a sugar-ring tied with a tiny bow of gold leaf, along with goat’s curd parfait, raspberry sorbet and yuzu gel (yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit, similar to a lemon). By then, I was full — but it was a finely rendered finish, indeed.

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