December delight

Sha-Roe Bistro, Clonegal, Co Carlow; Tel: 053-9375636; sharoebistro@hotmail.com The dining room’s glowing stove, twinkling glassware and sash windows amount to a deliciously-appointed balance of cosiness and class

IN my ideal calendar, the Sha-Roe Bistro would illustrate December. Squirreled away in Clonegal, between the Derry River and the Jacobean atmospherics of Huntingdon Castle, here is a dining room whose glowing stove, twinkling glassware and sash windows amount to a deliciously-appointed balance of cosiness and class.

Outside, a plaque tells of Patrick O’Donoghue, a Young Irelander who was born in the 18th century townhouse and went on to fight in the 1848 rebellion, before being exiled to Van Diemen’s Land and dying a pauper in Brooklyn at the age of 44. It’s a chilly, characterful detail.

Inside, by contrast, a beaming Stephanie Barillier welcomes us for Sunday lunch. Two hundred years after he was born, it seems, O’Donoghue’s birthplace has been transformed into a winter warmer whose flickering inglenook and gamey menu will put a glow in the cheeks even before you order. A wine rack is stashed away under the old staircase. A tiny cottage window peeks into the kitchen. The details are pin-sharp.

Barillier’s partner, Henry Stone, is the man behind the menu.

On our visit, his work makes for hearty reading, with French flair complemented by lots of venison, veal and winter vegetables — but also some sparky treatments of tiger prawns, hake and scallops from Dunmore East. All mains come with sides of thinly-sliced roast potatoes and green beans, sprinkled with sesame seeds too.

I’m visiting with the kids, which I don’t do as a rule when reviewing, but here turns into an unexpected plus. Rather than offering token chicken nuggets or sausages, Stephanie suggests we try half-portions of anything we like, including starters. It’s a brilliant idea — meaning we get to sample six dishes between us, in tasting-style portions. It should be patented!

To start, we go for a charcuterie plate that includes a buttery-soft chicken liver pate, a chunky venison terrine and a confit of duck terrine — all beautifully presented on a long plate, with spoonfuls of crab-apple jelly working as a seductive sweetener to the meats. A slice of Wicklow brie reminds us that Irish diners no longer need to fritter away food miles eating good cheese.

Black tiger prawns and crab are served in a Thai-style coconut sauce with egg noodles — a delicate curry that doesn’t allow its spices or creaminess to out-muscle the shellfish. Stone’s bouillabaisse sees chunks of monkfish and cod simmering in a smoky French broth infused with tomatoes, onions and Provencal herbs, although a tad too much fennel for our liking.

We also get the most wonderful little bread buns, still warm from the oven.

Of the main courses, a pan-fried fillet of hake is topped with sweet Chantenay carrots, scallops are sweetly seared and laid atop of a dill and courgette risotto, and a plate of gorgonzola-stuffed ravioli, peppered with mushrooms, parmesan and a splash of truffle oil is a minor revelation — showing just how satisfying and refined good pasta can be. Too much of the pasta served in Irish restaurants is bought-in, overcooked and lathered in cream.

By the time desserts come around, we’re royally stuffed. We still make room, however, for a few scoops of ice-cream and a banana, chocolate and almond pithivier with peanut ice-cream and caramel sauce. The chocolate marquise (the original death-by-chocolate) may be too heavy for young palates, our waitress says, so the puff-pastry tart seems a lighter option.

The Sha-Roe Bistro is a genuine hidden gem. Smartly furnished, carefully staffed, over-achieving and under-the-radar, it’s utterly deserving of its Michelin Bib Gourmand.

I’m noting it down for a return visit — perhaps to enjoy the chef’s table, or to see what Stone will come up with in spring or summer. The small dining room seats just 28, so advance booking is a must, but even then, it feels stumbled-upon (right down to the lack of a website).

Afterwards, we stand by the water near Clonegal’s stone-arched bridge, watching as ducks zoom across the River Derry to tap us for some bread.

Sadly for them, we’ve devoured the lot.

THE TAB: Sunday lunch costs 33.50pp. Tip extra.

HOW TO: Dinner, Wednesday to Sunday, from 7pm; lunch, Sunday only from 12.30pm to 2.30pm

The verdict:

Food: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Ambience: 7/10

Value: 7/10

Wine: 6/10


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