Exceptional value for great bistro food

Review: If you’re going to north Mayo, this jewel of a find is the place to book

   

Poacher

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Coco Chanel’s great line can equally apply to many restaurant dishes. There’s a jangle of trinkets as I browse the menu in Poacher restaurant, and think, please no, not the whole jewellery box. Liquorice braised leek and salted gooseberries adorn a chicken supreme. And pan-fried wild Irish pigeon is embellished with potato and truffle mousseline, and a few bits more. And, at €8.50, I suspect this is the foul synthetic pretender, truffle oil.

But leaving the jewellery box to one side, the keenly-priced lunch menu (€22 for two courses, €27 for three) reads well, and on a Sunday afternoon, Poacher, which opened on the first floor above Heffernan’s butcher shop in Ballina in mid-July, is a smart-looking room with light panelled walls and socially distant tables of happy diners.

It is run by a young German/Austrian couple, Daniel Mayr working front of house and Yvonne Kathrein heading up the kitchen. They have been working in restaurants in Ireland for the past 14 years – at Kilronan Castle, Monart, and most recently, Waterfront House in Enniscrone.

Goat’s cheese gnudi at Poacher. Photograph: Corinna Hardgrave
Goat’s cheese gnudi at Poacher. Photograph: Corinna Hardgrave

Lest we be in any doubt that we’re in the west, the first thing that arrives to the table is exceptionally well-made brown bread with dillisk and black pepper, which artfully puts the right distance between its earthy whole wheat flavours and the potentially assertive tastes of the Atlantic. The white soda bread is also very good.

While there’s nothing new about a starter of crispy hen’s egg sitting on top of a salad, here it is a nice take on ham and eggs. The yolk oozes dutifully onto Oliver Carty’s organic gammon which has been shredded and dressed in vinegar and nestles in pea purée, pea shoots, watercress and pretty nasturtium petals. It is fresh and bursting with the sweetness of tiny, newly-picked peas.

A light touch in the kitchen is evident with the delicate goat’s cheese gnudi which manage to pack plenty of flavour without being too dense. The spiced tomato salsa has a bit of a kick, and colour and texture is added with mixed salad leaves and a scattering of seeds.

Familiar names

It goes well with a glass of Tandem rosé, a wine that may be familiar to fans of O’Briens off-licences. In fact, you’ll see quite a few familiar names on this wine list, which, while reasonably priced, could do with a few edgier additions and a little more than the usual suspects by the glass.

Our main course dishes are generous, not just in size, but also in terms of dearly loved ingredients, so yes, there’s at least one extraneous piece of jewellery on each plate. The cod is beautifully fresh, cooked to pearly splendour, sitting on a bed of orzo in a creamy sauce, and there’s a five-a-day slam dunk with a mix of finely cut celery, broccoli, bok choi, and kale, with micro leaves, pea shoots, flowers, cress, and nasturtium. None of these are the issue, it’s the confected taste of the lime sea foam which is an element too far.

Crispy hen’s egg on shredded gammon, a take on ham and eggs. Photograph: Corinna Hardgrave
Crispy hen’s egg on shredded gammon, a take on ham and eggs. Photograph: Corinna Hardgrave

Likewise, with the slow cooked featherblade of beef, which sits harmoniously on a bed of velvety Parmesan polenta, it is the sauce that knocks things out of kilter, in this case an overly sweet berry confit.

A lie down is required after the desserts; one to share would certainly be enough. Lemon and thyme sorbet is zesty and floral, served with an abundance of caramelised pineapple in spiced rum with scorched meringues dotted around the bowl.

Our second dessert is a restrained Velvet Cloud yoghurt ice-cream served with tart gooseberries, which would have been just perfect on its own, yet there’s a second part to this dessert, a large, well made crème brûlée which is properly set, but the kiwi fruit in it makes for a grainy texture, and is not an improvement on the original.

Poacher is a very smart, reasonably priced restaurant run by a talented couple who care about the produce they use and how they cook it. Yes, there may be a few superfluous elements on some of the dishes, driven by a combination of exuberance and generosity. But the cooking here is deft, the fundamentals are sound, it just needs to be reined in a tiny bit, and making these few tweaks is easily done. If you’re heading to north Mayo, this is the restaurant to book.

Three-course lunch for two people with two glasses of wine was €69.

Verdict: Smart bistro food in a smart room

Facilities: New and shiny

Food provenance: Top quality local produce with some interesting foraged bits

Music: Quiet, in the background

Vegetarian options: Excellent, a vegetarian and vegan menu

Wheelchair access: First floor restaurant, inaccessible