Rathdrum: Italian and Irish mix

Bates, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow; 0404 29988 , batesrestaurant.ie

EVEN IF you’ve never been to Rathdrum, the town feels familiar. Stand in the market square, and the old shopfronts, wooden signs and sloping coach arches look just as they did many decades ago. You might recognise it as a backdrop to Liam Neeson in Michael Collins (1996), Robert Mitchum in A Terrible Beauty (1960), or The Spice Girls in Stop (1997). The time-trapped atmospherics have made it one of Wicklow’s top movie locations.

It doesn’t take long to feel settled in Bates’ restaurant, either. The jumble of cottages and coffin sheds unfolding behind the Cartoon Inn dates from 1795, and inside, a country hearth anchors a long, sloping room that steps down a few feet every couple of tables. White stone walls are broken up by texts and photos — Liam Neeson here, Thomas Moore’s ‘Meeting of the Waters’ there.

Bates feels like a sanctuary for Sunday lunch, and indeed, that’s the way we first experienced it. This restaurant does a busy weekend trade, and we stopped to sample the menus — priced at two courses for €19.50 or three for €24.50.

There were several nice touches — we were asked how the salmon should be served (“pink or well done”) for example. There was a moreish tomato bread in the basket, and slow-cooked Tipperary pork belly arrived in the shape of two coiling rings of meat and crispy, crackling fat. Mopped up with a dollop of champ, and a good mustard sauce, it was perfect Sunday fare.

Returning recently on a Thursday evening, we tried the a la carte menu. Given the chef’s surname, it wasn’t surprising to find a mix of Italian and Irish staples — Wicklow lamb shank, pan-fried monkfish, venison or duck breast, for example, alongside an antipasto selection of cured meats with kalamata olives, lots of pasta, Parma ham and desserts like tiramasu and panna cotta.

We started with a seafood risotto and the goat’s cheese. Both were solid, if unspectacular. The cheese was lukewarm and powdery in the middle rather than gooey all the way through, but worked nicely with the sweetness of its honey glaze and the sharpness of accompanying beetroot. The risotto didn’t scrimp on the seafood — there were scallops, prawns, mussels and salmon in there for €9.95 — though its tomato sauce was more about comfort and volume than detail or inspiration.

Nothing wrong in that, of course — successful country restaurants always have to strike a balance between appetite-slaking and customers looking for a bit of imagination. And for the most part, Bates gets that balance right, offering good ol’ fashioned fare with an Italian twist.

For my main course, I went with the aubergine parmagiana. Despite its sloppy simplicity, this is a time-consuming dish to get right — the aubergines need to be squishy without being greasy, the tomato sauce to reduce without losing juiciness, the parmesan crust to be perfectly crispy. It came together nicely, though I did wonder why the tomato sauce was served on the side. The beauty of a good aubergine bake is the indulgent infusion of all flavours, making it as enjoyable in an Irish winter as a Mediterranean summer. The textures, however, were spot on.

The rack of Wicklow lamb was another tasty dish. The cuts were tender, blushing pink inside with a crispy outer edge. The jus was well-seasoned, and another difficult basic — potato gratin — was carried off with aplomb, with thin slices giving a little resistance without being mushy or hard.

Bates’ wine list is short and sweet, with 10 or so bottles of white and red, mainly from France, Italy and Spain.

Prices start from €19.95 a bottle, or €5 a glass, offering a little something for everyone.

Coeliac options were plentiful, the kids were fed for a tenner each (a price that included pasta, a glass of Ribena, a side dish and two scoops of ice-cream), and the service was easygoing and friendly.

When I looked for a glass of dry white, for example, our waiter offered a Pinot Grigio that was only listed by the bottle on the menu. Film stars may come and go, but Bates you feel, will always be here.

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