Inside a low stone building that smells of flagstone floors and oldness, we are sat in an upholstered nook beside a coal fire. There’s a sign on the wall that tells us we’re in “the naughty corner”. The tables are made with iron Singer sewing machines bases. Any minute Mrs Tiggywinkle might shuffle in shyly with a batch of freshly ironed handkerchiefs. Because if Beatrix Potter did decor, Clenaghans would be her flagship project.
When restaurants dial up the twee they tend to dial down the food ambition. Beautiful old buildings often house tired ideas. It’s as if their owners are so flogged from keeping the place standing that they slap in a carvery cabinet, fill the chest freezer with Yorkshire puds, snap laminated menus into faux leather binders and consider it job done.
Clenaghans is not that kind of restaurant. Michelin-starred chef Danni Barry arrived here before Christmas, fresh from her success with Michael Deane’s Belfast restaurant Eipic. It was a big leap from a city-centre place to this gorgeous old inn set in rolling pastures on the side of a road. She has set her dial to dazzle. Not with foams, gold leafery and tweezers but with the kind of food that reminds me of the moment I first fell in love.
It’s the sauce on my fish that rings that memory bell. I’m a teenager in another side-of-the-road restaurant somewhere in rural France tasting a silky buttery reduction unlike anything I have ever had before. Deliciousness squared and a life-long love of restaurants born. Here it’s a nut-brown pond of sauce sitting around a hake fillet wrapped in hispi cabbage. Hake and hispi are a bit of a trope these days, the cabbage leaf almost as ubiquitous as orange crumb.
Cabbage is magical
But here the cabbage is magical, like a veined green skin that grew on the fish when it reached land, its greenness glossy like those lettuce-leaf Carlton Ware salad bowls all the rage at ’70s dinner parties. Then there’s that glorious butter sauce and some cauliflower purée for extra smoothness.
Before we get there, we’ve had a parade of so many other impressive things: a portion of dulse butter looking like a rugby-ball-shaped quail’s egg alongside a pot of soft salmon rillette made up of thready tumble of poached and smoked salmon with lacy crisp buttered sourdough toasts. There have been actual quail’s eggs cloaked in sausage meat and bread crumbed and cooked so that a bright yellow yolk slides out of the “wee scotch eggs” like a kitchen conjuring trick. Crab with buttermilk and apple combines two kinds of sweetness of seafood and fruit with tang and ribbons of charred cabbage. If I had to pick holes I’d have liked some crunch with this but it’s a tiny quibble.
There’s a plate of properly impressive goat and beet, the cheese in curd form so it’s still almost liquid and gossamer delicate in flavour, a whisper of goat rather than the usual holler. Beets have been salt-roasted and sliced into sweet rounds with a sharper beet purée and polished brown linseeds baked into nutty chewy crackers, health food with the taste turned up.
Alongside that hake, the other main is a combination of roasted butternut squash and pasta tubes baked together with ricotta, like the crispy bits on top of the best macaroni cheese. There is sage and (how great a thing is this?) a slab of garlic bread, the quennelle of green pesto on top made from the softest wild garlic on top of a buttery slice of toast.
Best pastry cheffing
A baked apple sounds like a gastro-pub staple but in the hands of this kitchen it’s something much more special. Slices of apple baked to a mud brown are laid sideways like ribbons on crisp biscuity pastry topped with a walnut crumb and finished with an aerated custard. A chocolate tart collapses under the fork to a soupy fondant centre with coconut ice cream on the side. Bounty Bar eat your heart out. The desserts are some of the best pastry cheffing on the island. They come in at under £5 apiece.
They have three rooms at Clenaghans. Next time I’m booking one of them to settle into the creaky-staired romance and magic of this special inn. Danni Barry is a star and in this old, low stone building her food has found a place to truly shine.
Lunch for two with sparkling water and a coffee came to £91.40 (€108.30)
Verdict: Put Clenaghans on your list. It's top of mine for meal of the year
Food Provenance: None
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Limited but good
Place of joy
I fell out of a rain shower into an unexpectedly lovely cafe on Dawson Street in Dublin recently. The headquarters of the National Bible Society of Ireland has one of Dublin’s most beautiful shopfronts. Now they’ve turned their bible shop Bestseller into a more modern creature. I spotted no bibles, plenty of curated knick knacks and lifestyle books on the shelves and even a small room with its own table at the back for larger groups. Coffee and a scone were fine. The joy is in the room and the light through the stained-glass windows when the clouds clear.
Bestseller, Bible House, 41 Dawson Street, Dublin 2