Some restaurant lights go out in rural Ireland in winter. I stood in a Connemara village recently peering in a window at empty chairs and tables which will stay that way till spring. The wall sign was unhooked from its cast iron frame so that it didn't swing in the wind as a beacon for hungry travellers. For miles around this spectacularly beautiful countryside, food consisted of a pub sandwich or a convenience shop roll. Goodbye The Gathering. Hello The Shining.
Ireland’s restaurant scene is a tale of two countries: a thriving urban scene, and everywhere else. There are some exceptions, a lot of them run by well-known faces. But even in busy party season, rural restaurants can struggle. This isn’t because of some country lore that restaurants are like the Blarney Stone: strictly for tourists. It’s simply that there aren’t enough people to sustain good restaurants in every corner of the country. So a trip away to a new out-of-town venue can feel like Russian roulette. You return with a new find in your back pocket or the not very newsy story that a mediocre restaurant now sits somewhere off the beaten track.
Limerick’s Adare village is mecca for tourists seeking postcard places. Its 1826 restaurant is straight out of John Ford’s Ireland, a low white cottage topped with a thick thatch. Today it has a ladder and tarpaulin on the roof as if it’s about to have a makeover.
Wade Murphy is the chef here. After a long career in other people’s kitchens he opened his own place here earlier this year with his wife, Elaine.
We’ve arrived after a mother-and-daughter roadtrip which included a crash course in smartphone navigation for one of us. So the turret stone walls of Adare village are a welcome sight. The first thing we notice is how toasty warm this cosy restaurant is. We take our seats in the original kitchen of the cottage. A cauldron of just-for-show turf sits beside the gas stove in what you can see is the ghostly outline of a larger fireplace where a range cooker once burned. There’s a spinning wheel in a nook above the chimney breast. The room is simply whitewashed so you can see the mix of stone and brick in the thick walls. The windows are dressed with lengths of hessian sacking wound around curtain poles. The furniture is a mismatched assembly of dining and kitchen tables and chairs. The floor is covered in an institutional style tough blue carpet. Outside, cold raindrops are dripping off the ends of the thatch.
The back of the restaurant has a brighter modern extension and a stainless steel kitchen. Their Sunday service runs from 3pm to 7pm, a nice idea, which means we can try the €30 for two courses option and €35 for three.
A starter of oak and seaweed smoked organic salmon is laid out on a dark plate like a square picnic blanket. The fish is softly luscious and has a deeper briny note which may be down to the seaweed element. On top there are potatoes in a gorgeous nose-tickling horseradish creme fraiche, beet puree and a couple of splodges of a mystery element. It looks like apple sauce but tastes faintly of potato. Everything else on the plate is great.
Mum gets an excellent Crozier Blue salad with candied walnuts, curls of cucumber, golden beets and more of that purple beet puree. Her main course is a dream Sunday lunch of thick slices of rib roast, crispy on the outside and soft inside. There are parsnip chips and a high, puffy Yorkshire pudding that you could rest your head on if it wasn’t so comforting to eat.
My main course is more cheffy, with a variety of free range pork cuts turned into a spectrum of textures and flavour. There’s black pudding paper, a translucent curl of salty black pig’s blood made fleetingly solid before melting on the tongue like devil’s communion wafer. There’s a teeny pork cheek croquette of pink meat, a wedge of belly and a doorstep-sized chop covered in the special house chutney of golden sultanas and mustard seeds. This chop is moist and tender, unlike the pork chops I’ve stopped cooking at home because they have all the allure of polystyrene packing. There are shards of green apple that taste like they’ve been pickled in ginger.
Desserts maintain the standard with a “drunken fruit compote” of swollen raisins on my sticky toffee pudding. The caramel sauce has that molten sugar and butter home-made taste you only get when this stuff is made from scratch. Mum’s Kilner jar of autumn berry mess has button-sized brown sugar meringues in its gorgeous mix.
1826 Adare is a small, special place where the good stuff from its hinterland is being used by a talented kitchen. Being the chef and owner in a small year-round restaurant means pleasing the locals and bringing visitors in from further afield. Murphy has done it, creating a destination and a neighbourhood restaurant under the one thick thatched roof. Dinner for two with one glass of wine, sparkling water and coffee came to €83.35.
THE VERDICT: 8.5/10. Food that lives up to its lovely setting.
1826 Adare, Adare, Co Limerick, tel: 061-396004
Facilities: Small and cottagey
Wheelchair access: Yes
Music: Light jazz and folk
Provenance: Plenty. Limerick's Springfield Walled Garden Organics and Garret's Butchers among the names mentioned