Birthday celebrations at some of Ireland’s top hotels
Hotel group Relais & Châteaux is 60 this year, and its members all over the world are creating special menus to mark the occasion. They’re calling it a gourmet relay and here’s a flavour of what its Irish hotels are serving
The Relais & Châteaux celebrations got underway at the Cliff House in Ardmore
Razor clams at the Cliff House Relais & Châteaux celebration
Ballyfin Demesne sommelier Magda Mocek (left) and food and beverage manager Ricard Kennan (right), with wine importer Didier Fiat
The table set for dinner at Ballyfin Demesne
Beetroot, goat’s cheese bon bon, lemon horseradish marshmallow at Ballyfin
Mary, Laura and Margaret Bowe at Marlfield House
Patrick Hanley (left) of Sheen Falls Lodge and Francis Brennan of the Park Hotel with the Relais & Châteaux Livre D’Or
The Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore
Sunday, April 27th
How do you impress top-notch hoteliers on a busman’s holiday to Ireland? With difficulty, one might imagine, but a startlingly imaginative dinner with quirky biodynamic wines did the trick at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford. It was here that members of the Relais & Châteaux UK and Ireland branch assembled to kick off the group’s 60th birthday celebrations and to hold their AGM. No pressure, so, for Cliff House manager Adriaan Bartels, or his Michelin-starred chef Martijn Kajuiter. This dinner had to be exquisite and perfect, or the kitchen knives would be out. It delivered on both counts, while flying the Tricolour with pride.
Tiny starters such as white asparagus panna cotta with a herb jelly on top, razor clams with wild garlic, and West Cork scallops with Dutch salad and Irish caviar provided the green, white and gold, and then, just to be cheeky, came a box of pebbles with beetroot meringues and potato “stones” resting on top. Salmon in several guises and Atlantic halibut topped in watercress was followed by Ardmore carrot sorbet, and Irish veal with Blue Foot mushrooms and veal tea. A superb and dramatic rhubarb collapsing pudding was followed by the Relais fleur de lys logo executed in organic chocolate mousse served on giant dark chocolate-coloured plates.
Stunned by it all the members repaired to the bar for the real business of an out-of-town AGM.
The Park Hotel, Kenmare
Friday, May 9th
The Relais & Châteaux anniversary celebrations moved west, for a two-day party in Kenmare, Co Kerry – first to the Park Hotel and later, Sheen Falls Lodge. Guests were given a true At Your Service welcome to the Park by proprietor Francis Brennan, whose team has created a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere in this grand, late-19th century hotel overlooking Kenmare Bay and Reenagross Park nature reserve.
The evening began with Champagne and canapés. The 13 guests included first-time visitors to the Park such as retiree and keen photographer Richard Walsh and his wife, Margaret, from Tipperary, and returning guests like long-time visitor Connie Kiernan from Palmerstown in Dublin, who was welcomed back like a member of the family.
Head chef James Coffey prepared a special Taste of the Land menu for the evening to showcase the region’s finest game and livestock. Dining as a group – and entertained throughout by our host Francis – we began with a terrine of foie gras and Skeghanore duck, with the spiky tartness of apple slivers. Salad of roast woodpigeon, a wonderful balance of smoky breast and wing and delicate candy-striped heirloom beets and feta, was matched with a white Bosquet Des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Mushroom risotto followed, as the murmur of polite conversation gave way to lively stories and laughter. Next came the jewel in the crown, a taste of Kerry lamb, which included a sausage, a chop and tender fillet, served with a Contino Reserva Rioja.
We finished with a vanilla cremeaux and orange chocolate dome, with an Alain Brumont Châteaux Montus et Bouscassé dessert wine, after which the chat continued into the night.
Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare
Saturday, May 10th
It was hard to top the previous night’s dinner, with the one-man theatre show that is Francis Brennan. Luckily for us, the stunning backdrop of this five-star retreat – rolling gardens in a 300-acre estate, with the River Sheen cascading by and the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks looming large in the distance – was more than a match for the charms of the At Your Service presenter.
With our host at Sheen Falls, Patrick Hanley, we adjourned to the library for dinner in an intimate setting. Our Taste of the Sea menu started with a selection of Irish shellfish.
A lively discussion about JP McManus and the late Princess Diana was bookended by a perfectly balanced white tomato velouté and a smoked salmon espuma, before the main course stunned the table into (brief) silence: wild turbot and butter-poached lobster with smoked aubergine, courgette tempura and a basil and sorrel emulsion.
The conversation flowed as fast as the wine, and dinner ended on a deliciously dark note, with a ginger and chocolate thin served in a trinket box – itself made of chocolate – followed by Valhrona chocolate plate.
Marlfield House, Gorey
Thursday, May 22nd
The bright, airy Victorian conservatory of Marlfield House in Co Wexford was the perfect setting for this intimate gathering on a sunny evening. Guests were greeted with Champagne and a warm welcome from the lady of the house, Mary Bowe, and her daughters Laura and Margaret.
This secluded country hideaway – which has played host to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as well as many other well-known figures over the years – is set among lovely, tall mature trees and lush vegetable- and flower-gardens. Inside, the fine antiques and paintings have their own stories to tell – of which Mary is the true expert.
Taking our seats for the Relais & Châteaux celebratory dinner, guests were presented with a spring tasting menu featuring food from the surrounding countryside. The 27-year-old chef, Ruadhan Furlong, is from Gorey. Local fish is a strong point: first with deliciously light Kilmore Quay crab salad and seared scallop, followed by a delicate crème brûlée of Duncannon smoked sea trout with pickled beets and cucumber. Slaney Rosé veal was served as a carpaccio with brie and rocket, and the Wexford spring lamb was perfectly pink and tender. Sommelier Jacques Fournier’s wine pairings were a fine compliment to the menu. As night closed in on the leafy surrounds, a dessert medley was brought to the table, its centrepiece “garden pink” rhubarb.
Ballyfin Demesne, Co Laois
Saturday, May 24th
While the world media played Desperately Seeking Kimye this week, I had a sneaking suspicion that the US reality TV star and her musician husband would be honeymooning in discreet luxury at Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois, and if not, then they should have been. The lavish 15-bedroom property has, after all, been described by Condé Nast Traveller as “easily the grandest hotel in Ireland”.
Everyone is treated as a VIP at Ballyfin, from the welcome party led by head butler Lionel Chadwick that greets new arrivals on the steps to the house, to the pre-dinner Champagne served in one of several reception rooms that manage to be sumptuous and comfortable at the same time.
But there was one extra-special guest in the house last Saturday: the Livre D’Or, a substantial leather-bound volume in which the Relais & Châteaux establishments will each lodge a copy of their 60th anniversary menu. It was on display in the beautiful Van der Hagen room where a small group gathered to feast on a six-course tasting menu created by head chef Ryan Murphy.
Didier Fiat, who was head sommelier and wine buyer at The K Club for 14 years and is now a wine importer and distributor, hosted the dinner and chose wines to accompany the menu, which ticked all the local and seasonal boxes.
Murphy, who has worked at The Savoy in London, and with Alain Ducasse at The Essex House and Jean Georges in New York, opened with a goat’s cheese, beetroot and lemon horseradish marshmallow confection paired with a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine de la Girardière 2012. A luscious Monbazillac Château Vari 2005 met its match in roasted foie gras “pot au feu”, and Carlingford lobster came with a Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes Domaine Vessigaud 2012. Connemara Hill lamb was a highlight of an exceptional dinner and Château Léoville-Barton Saint-Julien 1999 was a perfect partner. Banyuls Rimage 2011 from Domaine Du Mas Blanc alongside a Valrhona chocolate dessert brought to a conclusion the first part of the birthday celebrations.
The indulgence, and the fun, continued in the downstairs bar where the food and beverage manager, Richard Kennan, who was a pupil at Ballyfin when it was a school, presented a tutored tasting of Irish whiskeys.
The Relais & Châteaux gourmet relay continues with dates across Wales, Scotland and England, leading to a gala finale at Hibiscus, Le Gavroche and The Goring in London in September.