THROUGH the dimming twilight, it is Dearly Beloved (DB) who first spots the serried ranks of vintage Rolls Royces lined up at Hayfield Manor.
Even I — no petrolhead — admit it is charming, very ‘Downton’, most appropriate for this bucolic ‘Country Home’ oasis in the middle of town.
It turns out these stately chariots belong to a touring group from abroad, mostly Americans, spending a few weeks spinning around autumnal Ireland, swaddled in blankets from the damp and draughts. Many have even shipped their precious vehicles across the Atlantic.
It also illustrates how Hayfield Manor managed to better weather the recent turbulent years than many others in the Irish hospitality industry, in targetting a sufficiently large international clientele financially immune to the harsher realities of recession.
Hotel restaurant dining rarely fills me with enthusiasm for culinary conservatism is usually the order of the day but a recent visit to Hayfield left me pleasantly surprised and the wine list, expertly marshalled by one of Ireland’s best sommeliers, Sandra Biret Crowley, is wonderful if your wallet can handle the altitude, so, it is with some anticipatory pleasure that DB and I roll into Orchids restaurant.
The place is buzzing, chockfull of convivial Americans including a wonderful character of a vintage similar to his Rolls Royce outside, tottering around on a cane, sporting a black Stetson and a cowboy shirt.
We order starters: Seared Irish Scallops, Cauliflower, Rosscarbery Black Pudding, Apple, Rosemary Oil, but without the Black Pudding for DB, a delicate flower who steers clear of red meat. I surprise even myself by plumping for Torchon of Foie Gras With Fig Compote, Malbec Gel, Hazelnut Crumb, Brioche.
This is a fiddly classic from the French canon, not often seen these days, but in a London restaurant kitchen, I once made — quite literally, in the end — a very expensive dog’s dinner of producing such a torchon, earning a clatter for my troubles in days long before such fanciful conceits as labour tribunals and human resources.
DB’s two scallops arrive — with black pudding. Once the error is noted, apologies are profuse and the dish is whisked away.
When the new version returns, black pudding is no more but there are still only two scallops, a few dabs of cauliflower puree and some julienned strips of apple.
At €69 a head for dinner excluding side dishes (an additional €4.50) and wine, the wide, open spaces on the plate seem to go on forever.
My torchon has an inexplicable bitter note far removed from the usual sweet, buttery taste and the single disk of brioche toast, wafer thin and just over an inch in diameter, is hardly adequate for the two slices of foie gras.
My main course, Mushroom & Spinach Pithivier, Smoked Gubbeen, Chickpeas, Seasonal Baby Vegetables, Porcini Cream, is now doubly seasoned by hunger and I hack off a slice, wolfing it down.
All goes well until I hit the spinach. It hasn’t been properly washed, grit grinding between my teeth.
I run up the flag. As I wait, I worry at the pretty-looking vegetables; they may be seasonal somewhere but not in Ireland and lack real flavour.
By the by, DB notes her Seared John Dory Fillets (served with Dillisk Potato, Asparagus, Féves, Petit Pois, Lemon & Caper Oil) are very over-salted.
An uninspired cheese selection still wearing its refrigerated chill does little to alter my disappointment and I take DB’s word for it that her Baked Alaska is pleasant, drowning my sorrows in the dregs of a good Charly Nicolle 2014 Petit Chablis.
One mark of a good restaurant is in how they handle a complaint and, during the postmortem, the manager’s response is exemplary.
We chalk it down to an off day but I can’t help feeling, even on form, that this current kitchen crew has yet to truly stretch its wings.
Hayfield obviously know their clientele but I suspect even ornery old cowboys from Texas would be more than happy to eat a more updated take using the very finest Irish produce — from the humblest veg to the choicest cut — rather than an over-reliance on imported luxuries and certain recipes with logbooks dating back further than the Rolls Royces parked outside.
€138 plus tip wine — €40
Open for reservations 7pm to 9.30pm (five evenings a week, May to September; three evenings, October to April)
Orchids at Hayfield Manor Hotel Perrott Avenue, College Road, Cork;
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