THE Wild Honey Inn is a former Victorian hostelry dating back to 1841 when well-heeled gentry regularly decamped to Lisdoonvarna to ‘take the waters’ and restore ailing spirits with spa treatments, and was lovingly restored a decade ago by chef/proprietor Aidan McGrath and his partner Kate Sweeney, who looks after accommodation and restaurant front of house.
Arriving, we dump bags in our room and head out for the briefest of conscience-salving strolls, reasoning a quick circuit of the locality in the teeth of biting gale and spitting overcast skies constitutes sufficient penance for any potential excesses ahead. I’m soon in the bar-dining room, relishing a pint of plain near a roaring fire.
Many find the Michelin ‘method’ maddeningly opaque but, in fairness, Rebecca Burr, Editor of The Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland, stated some years ago her belief that the best route to a star for hospitality practitioners on the two islands lay in adding an elevated dining element to traditional old pubs and hostelries.
The WHI dining area is a high-ceilinged bar with deep-set arched windows. Wooden tables are bare, save napkins, cutlery and candle. Olive green walls sport a tasteful array of ‘pub’ paraphernalia, including vintage whiskey water jugs and a blackthorn stick on the mantlepiece. All in all, pretty much an ideal iteration of Burr’s favoured gastropub model; in 2018, the WHI received the only new Michelin star to be awarded in Ireland that year.
The menu is a tight little prix fixe: five starters, five mains, four desserts and a cheeseboard; just €60 per person, astounding value at this level.
CW begins with Charred Cured Organic Salmon, clean, bright notes of dill to fore, served with gossamer-thin slices of pickled kohlrabi, capers, lemon and a mustardy gravadlax sauce.
My Duck and Foie Gras Terrine is a sublime take on a rustic classic, generous slab of duck terrine, rich, buttery foie gras, embedded in the centre. A sliver of duck ‘ham’ rests on salad of fine green beans, mushroom and roasted hazelnut; puree of pickled apple is a sharp-sweet counterpoint for the sumptuous meats.
Next, CW opts for perfectly cooked wild silver hake atop four proudly plump and succulent Dublin Bay Prawns and two spears of broccolini. Verdant wild garlic velouté and roasted hazelnuts complete the dish.
Blanquette of Pork Cheeks arrives in a copper pot, tender sweet meat, braised for hours, rather than being subjected to ‘tenderising’ in a sous vide bath, for it retains pleasing bite and depth of flavour rarely found when using the latter method.
The pot also contains a fricassee of silky, fleshy beech mushrooms, toothsome broad beans and wilted wild garlic in creamy smoked bacon velouté, a sufficiency of muscular flavours to merit pairing with a cracking Cotes du Rhone (Santa Duc, Vielles Vignes, 2015).
It is cooking of the highest order, technically adroit yet also profoundly satisfying, a primal comfort blanket for such a wild and windy night, divinely capped with a side order of crisp roast potatoes, white and fluffy on the inside.
I’ve run out of notches in the belt but dessert is still to be tackled. CW orders perky Poached Pineapple in set vanilla cream with a deliciously refreshing pineapple sorbet. Having spied a fellow diner’s portions, I can’t but order a superb Chocolate Fondant that, when speared, bleeds forth sticky, rich molten chocolate; blood orange sorbet and blood orange gel make for sterling subordinates.
There is something deeply admirable about McGrath and his refusal to get sidetracked by ephemeral trends, instead applying time-honoured techniques of classical French cooking to fine, mostly Irish, ingredients. With just he and one other chef cooking each dish, he leaves no mysteries to be unravelled on the plate, each element, instantly identifiable, and the WHI remains the quintessence of old school comfort, where you go to ‘eat your dinner of an evening’.
Neither can I imagine many Michelin star chefs rise each morning after delivering evening service to cook breakfast (not least exquisite Omelette Arnold Bennet) for overnight guests. And, speaking of ‘overnight’, there’s nothing more for it but to let this particular sybarite make that short stroll to his lovely and elegant room, to sleep like an especially well-fed baby, the best and most fitting conclusion to ‘dinner’ at the Wild Honey Inn.
€60 per person for three-course dinner (excluding tip)
(May to September) Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 6pm-9pm
The Wild Honey Inn, Kincora Road, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare.