Wilde’s at The Lodge at Ashford, Cong, County Mayo. Telephone: 094 954 5400; www.thelodgeac.com
I DON’T understand conservatism as a political concept or as a guiding philosophy. I am baffled by right-wing activists and politicians and their fear of change and by people that always order the same flavour of ice-cream. I relish being challenged and confronted with the new and the different.
What to make then of the décor in the Lodge at Ashford which mixes pop art and kitsch with the homely and old fashioned and throws in more than a few touches of Kardashian-esque faux-glamour. I confess I rather hated it, but by the end of our weekend at the Lodge (we had a two-day B&B voucher) we were loath to leave — I still disliked some bits but the eccentricity of the décor had become strangely comforting.
The Lodge was built in the mid-19th century as a home for the manager of the estate of Ashford Castle and is part of the same hotel group the Castle — you can visit the neighbours but you may need to book in advance for even a drink at the bar.
My reason for visiting the Lodge was to try the food of head chef Jonathan Keane whom I have encountered at food festivals and whose mission statement is simple — ‘local food with imagination’. He has impeccable suppliers, grows his own leaves and vegetables where possible and his chefs take a two-hour break each day to forage in the Estate’s woods and grassland or attend to the polytunnels.
Yes, there was a large zebra print rug in the first-floor dining room of Wilde but from our window table we could see bobbing boats in Lisloughry Harbour and once dusk arrived watch the steady stream of young and old take selfies and portraits under under the tree in the garden that has been filled with a few thousand lights.
Our meal began with fine breads and an interesting amuse of cured salmon with Goatsbridge Trout Caviar, orange gel and wood sorrel — the amuse was a promising start but I scored it 8/10 — everything that followed was a 9/10 or more.
Lightly spiced and delicately cooked monkfish arrived atop a barley and coconut risotto with some goats cheese on the side to add pungency — a satisfying dish with the spicing and texture of the fish working well with the risotto and the cheese adding a pleasing accent. The Engineer is still talking about her wild mushroom cannelloni with its silky pasta and earthy umami mushroom flavours topped with some truffle slices and a satisfying Parmesan mornay sauce to add a little more intensity.
Pan-roast turbot flaked perfectly on satisfying bacon and cabbage cooked in brown butter which added umami and weight to the dish — dots of garlic-oyster mayonnaise and a deep fried oyster doubled down on the umami.
The Engineer’s cod was almost under-cooked and given lots of interesting flavours to play with — grapefruit, fennel and rather fascinatingly some chunks of watermelon. The delicate texture of the barely-cooked fish knitted in neatly with the sweet-earthy (and watery) flavours in the melon. A bonus mini-course of the chef’s signature duck breast with cinnamon and anise then arrived on a bed of flaming spruce needles — the lingering smoke in the air adding intriguing accents to the dish and contrasted the carrot purée and orange gel.
A glass of lemon and herbal- scented Quinta de la Rosa white port was a fine recommendation to match a (bonus) wood sorrel granita’s herbal lemony oxalic acid flavours — the two combining to make the mouth water far better than those chewy sweets from the 1980s.
The spirity port also worked perfectly with a sea buckthorn and lemon meringue pie — shortbread topped with dots of meringue and blobs of sea buckthorn and yuzu curd with sweet-sour buttermilk ice cream to keep the flavours in check.
Staff were efficient and charming and the maître d’ offered good advice, descriptions and explanations to us and the other diners. This was a very fine meal that offered surprising contrasts and imaginative twists and almost every course had poise, clarity and expressiveness with no extraneous flourishes or frippery.
Change is good but there was nothing I would want to change about the cooking here and I strongly recommend a visit.
Dinner for two including amuse, starters, main courses and bonus courses plus a shared dessert, a bottle of excellent Hopler Gruner Veltlinerwine and a shared glass of white port cost €154 (excluding tip).
March 1 – October 31 open daily, dinner: 6.30pm-9pm; lunch (Sunday Only) 1pm – 3.30pm
In a sentence: Fine Irish ingredients cooked with imagination, flair and ambition — easily my best meal of 2017 so far.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved