Fatted Calf review: Something tasty has moved to town

The move from a more rural location has not diminished this restaurant’s appeal

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The Fatted Calf

  • Church St, Athlone, Co Westmeath
  • 0906433371
  • Irish

T here’s an eerily life-like rubber earthworm on my desk. It’s a souvenir from Athlone where the joke shop haul also included a handshake buzzer which stopped working mercifully quickly for all concerned.

It’s not the calibre of the joke merchandise that has brought us to Athlone, a town so much in the dead centre of the country it might be described as the bellybutton of Ireland. We’re headed to the Fatted Calf on something of a return visit. We’ve eaten in the restaurant before, only not in this incarnation of it. The last time we visited the Fatted Calf it was housed in an old pub in the Westmeath village of Glasson, a building straight out of the quaint cottagey placemat collection. Since then the country mouse has become Johnny town mouse. And the transformation is dramatic.

Where once were thick old stone walls there is now plate glass, walls of it in this new rectangular room beside Athlone’s theatre. There are orange leather upholstered chairs, some featuring furry cowhide patches. Filament bulbs feature. They have jumped the shark out of a quiet old backwater and into a shiny new fish tank.

Part of me feels sad about this. It was lovely to step into an old roadside pub and find Feargal O’Donnell’s cooking served alongside creamy pints. It would be heartening to see a restaurant thrive in an out-of-the-way location, creating a halo effect all round it as people come just to eat there. But livings need to be made and the comprehensive list of ingredients and makers at the bottom of the menu is reassurance that while the decor is different the ethos behind the food won’t be. O’Donnell is still in the kitchen but he has handed the title of head chef to Dee Adamson, according to the menu.

The shift out of the sticks seems to have moved the food into more cheffy territory. A plate of Burren Smokehouse wild mackerel (a description that’s the fish version of hen’s egg as we don’t get tame mackerel) arrives as two creamy quenelles of fish pâté surrounded by teeny cubes of watermelon and pineapple and some beet as a nod to more local vegetables. Not everything works. The tropical fruit seems out of place on such a locavore plate. But there isn’t much of it and the pickled gherkins are a sharp and better match to the smoky mackerel.

Across the table there’s a salad of double fired chilli beef, sticky gnarly shards of good beef speckled with sesame seeds served in a bowl of baby gem with lime and mango mayonnaise. The beef has had a hefty helping of sweetness to counteract any chilli fire.

My plate of the night is a beautiful creamy riff on textures and tastes. There are a couple of silky house-made pasta ravioli filled with aubergine and smothered in Macroom smoked mozzarella. There’s a butternut squash puree that manages to be both smooth and fluffy and an artichoke and celeriac cream. It sounds like too many creamy things but it’s not. It’s an accomplished plate of intricately made elements.

Liam has two fillets of great fresh hake, panko-crumbed with a minted pea that brings garden and ocean together on a plate. The eldest tries the dry-aged beef burger with maple bacon and Hegarty’s cheddar on a toasted blaa. It is quite simply a brilliant burger. His brothers have the house-breaded chicken (if you have it on the menu they will order it) and are leaving space for a salted caramel doughnut for dessert.

To my relief this is golfball rather than sliothar-sized and it sits on top of a textbook-perfect crème brûlée. There’s a pink meringue balanced cheekily on top of a sunny yellow dollop of Cúlcow lemon curd ice cream all surrounded by softly fresh strawberries that taste of strawberry.

So the Fatted Calf has reinvented itself as a metropolitan space with a talented woman chef at the helm. The old Fatted Calf was my favourite family dinner experience in a long time. The new place is a different type of beast but just as good in its own way.

Dinner for five with a glass of wine came to €94.40

The Fatted Calf, Church St, Athlone, Co Westmeath; (090) 643 3371

Facilities: Very nice Music: Jazz and pop
Food provenance: Extensive. Horan’s craft butchers, Castlemine Farms, Mossfield Cheese, Cúlcow ice cream among the long list of names
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Good
THE VERDICT: A truly smart town restaurant