Bacon and onion brioche, served with whipped butter, followed by a tiny choux bun filled with onion marmalade and Gruyère cream, is not what you expect at the restaurant of a small country pub in Donegal.
It’s a three-course, €50 menu, that covers fish, meat, and vegetarian options admirably, but since Ciarán Sweeney, the former head chef at Forest & Marcy, returned to his home county and took over as head chef at the Olde Glen Bar & Restaurant in Glen village, near Carrigart, this simply worded menu has a few unannounced surprises.
A Donegal oyster, served on the half shell, is a dazzling mouthful. Flecked with flakes of frozen horseradish buttermilk and bathed in smoked brown butter; smoke, earthy nuttiness and iodine from briny seaweed, meld into a taste of Ireland and Japan in warm and cool waves that linger and last.
Among the four starters is Sweeney’s signature fermented potato bread which he created when he was working in Forest & Marcy. It is a dish so clever, so quintessentially Irish yet modern, that it should be recorded in Irish food history. Potatoes, cabbage and bacon. A tiny copper pot of foaming smoked bacon essence is there to dip the farl of fermented potato bread in, and this is topped with chopped cabbage which is rich and intense, speckled with tiny bits of crisp bacon. Ardent fans will be beating a path to Donegal for this dish alone.
The scallop dish also packs a punch of flavour. Beautifully presented, on a bed of verdant green peas, the three pristine scallops are partially shielded by two leaves of blanched cabbage and a featherlight shard of crisp chicken skin. The peas taste as if they have just been plucked from an organic field, sweet with no hint of starchiness. Beneath the scallops are deeper flavours, ham that is like pork belly, crisped and rich with a touch of star anise. It’s a lot of flavour, and maybe the meatier layer could be saved for a winter version of this dish, allowing the glorious peas to share more of the summer spotlight with the scallops.
For main course, the hake, which sits in a puddle of crab bisque on spinach and samphire with a seafood croquette, is burnished gold and deliciously fresh. Gossamer thin slices of lightly pickled courgette add a brush of acidity. The bisque, which has the bones of something good, takes me a bit by surprise, with a strident note that bellows out the minute the dish lands on the table. I sometimes wonder if chefs know that there are no actual truffles in truffle oil. It is flavoured with a bludgeoning chemical component, 2,4-dithiapentane. Jeffrey Steingarten blew the lid on it in a Vogue article in 2003, and leading food writers and critics, including the late Anthony Bourdain and AA Gill, despised it.
Our other main course is beef fillet, which has been dry-aged, bringing an intensity of flavour to the meat, with more robust flavours kicking in from a mound of slow cooked beef cheek. Exquisite Irish asparagus speaks of the seasons, but somehow, I feel Sweeney is missing a trick. Apart from the asparagus, all the other elements, including a heavily reduced sauce, steer the flavours resolutely in the direction of winter.
The desserts bring things right back, with an Eton mess that is delicately constructed with blades of brittle meringue, rose petals, sweet strawberries, a light white chocolate cream, and a delightfully fresh strawberry sorbet. The crème caramel also rings out the seasons, dressed with blackcurrants that spill down the sides and a punchy blackcurrant sorbet.
Sweeney is a skilled and thoughtful chef – no evidence is needed beyond the incredible fermented potato bread dish and the spectacular oysters – but there are dishes that would benefit from a bit of restraint. The flavours are full on, so judicious ordering is essential or you may run out of steam.
While the pedestrian wine list could certainly do with a bit of attention, the menu here is very good value and will please both locals and those travelling to follow him. It is so good to see a young chef returning to his home county and anchoring his dishes in the locality. There will always be an authentic sense of Donegal running through the dishes that Sweeney creates. It will be interesting to see his food develop further.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €134.
The verdict: 8/10; come prepared for plenty of robust flavours.
Facilities: One fully accessible toilet, further toilets in the bar.
Music: Background, and at a level that allows chat.
Food provenance: Vegetables from Ballyholey Farm, shellfish from dayboats, fish from Killybegs.
Vegetarian options: One vegetarian option per course, vegan option with prior notice.
Wheelchair access: Fully accessible, with accessible toilet.