Dinner at Ireland's Downton
Demesne is memorable for its impressive renovation and impeccable service, but underneath the gold and silver leaf, the food is 'ordinary,' writes CATHERINE CLEARY
I’m driving slowly behind a 20-year-old horsebox on a narrow country road in deepest Laois. This is the road to Ireland’s Good Room. It reminds me of the half-jokey acronym in our house as kids if guests were coming: FHB, or Family Hold Back. Piece of smoked salmon? Not until the guests have had some. Those plumped cushions? For The Guests.
It’s Budget day and Messrs Noonan and Howlin are polishing their wooden spoons to give a collective rap on the knuckles. So I’m on the road to Ballyfin, to see what rich people eat. Only guests get to dine here. Many of them fly in from the US to do so. Gatherings of the glittering kind happen in Ballyfin, with Mom or Pops picking up the bill. My Wednesday night with lunch, dinner and breakfast is costing (deep, calming breath now) €475, and you stump up a quarter of that upfront. For two sharing, the price is €750.
So for 20 hours I will live like a New York hedge fund manager visiting a gilded corner of the old sod. Goodbye downturn. Hello Downton.
Two fat stone ducks sit on the pillars at either side of the iron gates to Ballyfin. There’s a carriage-width drive for about a mile down through the grounds. In front of the stern facade of this big house I see three liveried staff standing in wait. There’s a smell of woodsmoke. I hand over the car keys. They will be stored in the drawer of a desk that is probably worth more than the car.
In the Cathedral-scale stone-floored porch, wellies and umbrellas are lined up. Here they have a tray of hot facecloths, something I’ve never really needed after a 90-minute drive. But I might if I had just negotiated the Red Cow roundabout straight off the red eye.
Up the main stone staircase past a towering Christmas tree (not fully decorated yet, they explain) we go to the Butler room, not “the butler’s room” but a room named after James Butler, an Earl of Ormonde from the 1600s whose beady-eyed face looms down on me from his portrait over the fire place. The suitably dramatic Old Spice music (O Fortuna from Carmina Burana) is playing on a DVD player hidden in a mirrored wardrobe. The room is beautiful, with two enormous sash windows overlooking the sunlit lake.
There’s an armchair with a footstool, in which I could happily spend the entire visit, a couch, a high four-poster bed and an antique wardrobe with a brass plate on one drawer that reads “amenities”. These turn out (a little disappointingly) to be manicure sets and clothes brushes and a long shoe horn to allow you to slip on your Louboutins without having to bend down. The bathroom is larger than most hotel bedrooms. A chandelier with real candles hangs over the tub, which is deep enough to drown a baby hippo.
The final touch is a green curtain tassel hanging on the doorknob to the room. Putting it on the outside, the concierge explains, is Ballyfin code for “do not disturb”. I think of it as the “no-hassle-tassel”. Nothing so impersonal as a printed door knob card for guests here.
Fred Krehbiel is a Chicago cable magnet. His family company Molex makes a PC component called the Molex connector. He bought Ballyfin in a crumbling state in 2002. A painstaking nine-year refurbishment project wrestled it back to glory from the grip of the damp and the ivy. And last year it opened as Ireland’s most expensive hotel, with just 15 bedrooms, all of them stuffed with antiques and art.