Clare: The award goes to...

Gregan’s Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, Tel: 065-7077005, gregans.ie

THE Burren is one of the most beautiful, possessing places in Ireland. Even in this summerthat-never-was it shone, glowing stony whites and greys in that luminescent Atlantic light after the rain had passed over.

In so many nooks and folds — fairy glens if ever there were some — it is so beautiful that it is hard to believe it has not got an internal life; hard not to imagine that it looks upon our visits as a fleeting imposition to be endured until winter drives most of us clomping, panting tourists away.

Perched on the Ballyvaughan rim of The Burren is Gregan’s Castle Hotel, an iteration of a building begun around

1750. It’s a lovely, quiet country house with mature gardens and stunning views out over the sea to the west and The Burren to the north.

The place seems to encourage quiet, the quality has almost a physical presence — no television anywhere — and is very much more a retreat than a resort. It may be relaxed but it is not casual. It’s quite an expensive place to stay or eat but that is the market it serves and the food is really sublime.

Chef David Hurley not so very long ago succeeded the much-feted Finn Mickael Viljanen who has flown to The Greenhouse in Dublin.

Hurley must have felt like whoever will eventually replace Alex Ferguson at Manchester United will feel. Viljanen had won nearly as many gongs as there are concertinas in Clare so the bar has been set at pretty high. Could it be sustained? On the evidence of our visit, very much so.

It was a family affair and six of us shared a joyous homecoming. One of our party, almost closer to 90 than 80 and as fickle as that venerable achievement entitles her to be, described the meal as the best she had ever eaten.

The menu, though not extensive, was complex and constructed with a unity not always seen in restaurants with such a rosette-festooned reputation. We opted for the full menu and three courses were augmented by two neat surprise courses — and a wonderfully rich and generous plate of petites fours at the end of the meal.

DW and I both chose foie gras with lobster, peach, and fennel. What a pretty plate, what lovely tastes. I’ve moaned before about style replacing substance but here we had both in a near-perfect balance.

Strange to think that this dish would be illegal in California as they have — presumably using the same wisdom they used to elect The Terminator, aka Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor — banned foie gras. A perfect example of political correctness consumed by blind hypocrisy.

For her main course DW had olive oilpoached cod, asparagus, brown shrimp, and bone-marrow ravioli. And yes, it was lovely; layered textures and tastes brought together in a most impressive way.

My main course was roasted squab pigeon, parsnips, onion, and caramelised chicory. Always a fan of game, this dish was enjoyable but seemed short on the depth that sets conventional game cookery apart.

Nevertheless it was wonderful but served as a warning... anyone taking just a main course might not feel satisfied if they had an appetite even a smidgen more ambitious than a jockey’s.

Desserts were lovely; white and dark chocolate with cherries and hazelnuts for DW and a robust plate of earthy cheeses for me. It may be an indication of the inventiveness in the kitchen that the only dish available on our visit and flagged on the hotel’s website sample menu was the cheese board.

Wines, from a wide-ranging list, were an intense Cantos de Valpiedra 2008 which, at €40 seemed more than a little over priced. A white, Gruner Veltliner Smaragd at €48.50, was a family-reunion indulgence even if very stiffly priced.

Gregan’s Castle provided another wonderful meal in a summer of splendid surprises — but do be sure you’d enjoy its quietness and style because it is expensive and professionally reserved. But be assured — all of those gongs are very well deserved.

THE TAB:

Full menu €69, any two courses €55, main course €35 or vegetarian €25. Drinks and tip extra.

HOW TO:

April to October, Monday to Saturday from 6pm to 8.30pm (9pm on Saturdays), on Sundays a more casual dinner until 7pm. Different arrangements on bank holiday weekends.

The verdict:

Food: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Ambiance: 9/10

Wine: 8/10

Value: 8/10


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