Fine dining fit for a lady at Kilkenny’s Mount Juliet

The Lady Helen Restaurant takes hotel food to a different level

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The Lady Helen, Mount Juliet

  • Mount Juliet Hotel, Thomastown
  • (056) 7773000
  • Irish

I spent a lovely morning with Maura Laverty recently, nose-deep in her 1946 cookbook, Kind Cooking , with its beautiful Louis le Brocquy illustrations. Aside from the sparkle of her writing, her ideas about food are as relevant today as they were revolutionary in 1940s Ireland.

Boil vegetables, she writes snarkily, “if you want to make them useless”. Steam them if you want to preserve some of their nutrients, she continues. But “bake them in a casserole and serve them in the dish in which they were baked if you want to do the really kind thing by them and your family”.

On this holiday weekend, boiled vegetables will land with a thud on hotel diningroom tables all around the country. Limp florets of broccoli and sticks of soggy carrot will languish in bowls before being scraped into bins and heading for landfill. The boiled vegetable is the curse of the hotel diningroom.

So it’s great to see them entirely absent from the diningroom in the Lady Helen Restaurant in Kilkenny’s Mount Juliet hotel. When you read ingredients like sea lettuce and sea buckthorn on the evening menu, things get interesting.

We’ve arrived on a wet and windy Friday night and taken our seats in the Lady Helen. It’s as quaint as its name, set in the old-house part of this country estate.

We order a bottle of the Galician Albarino, Moraima (€44). The tone is set with a teeny treat to start off a bright pink beetroot meringue (or vacherin, as they call it here) sandwiched with mackerel mousse and cucumber. It’s a puff of flavour with the mackerel meatiness giving all the airiness some ballast.

A notched piece of wood on which I’ve tried to balance my phone turns out to be a stand for the butter knife (yes, the waitress agrees, others have been disappointed it’s not something more interesting). Tiny, warm rosemary brioche rolls with a crumbly crust are divine. Cuinneog butter comes in two discs, with salt and pepper on top or unseasoned.

A scallop starter is great, though I’m guessing instead of three scallops I’ve got one and a half sliced through the middle. The artistry with which they’re cooked makes up for it. They’re on a bed of still-bright-green sea lettuce, with cubes of apple jelly and and even tinier cubes of preserved lemon. A chicken consomme is poured over them. If they’re going to take a knife to the scallops I’d love to see them go the whole hog and serve them raw as sashimi, quivering on this lovely sea lettuce. But that’s just me.

Liam’s veal terrine has blobs of sea buckthorn puree to give it just the right amount of lip-puckering tartness. Beautifully pickled vegetables include a wonderful tangerine piece of beetroot.

There’s no dip in the ambition for the main course. A plate of squab pigeon with almond milk, date puree, an almond potato mix and york cabbage is a masterclass in cooking. The meat is pink as a slapped cheek inside, delivering almost liverish, deeply tasty mouthfuls with the clean, nutty sweetness of everything else on the plate.

Liam’s pale tender rabbit is rolled in pancetta and served with a furiously green fennel puree and a feathery langoustine.

A cheese plate with booze-soaked baby figs and pickled pear does what it needs to do. But a plate of petit fours provides a memorable end. Highlights include a liquorice marshmallow, a mango pastille and a pistachio financier not much bigger than a fingertip.

A hotel dinner should be more than just a break from the hob. In the Lady Helen they make it an occasion, food that does justice to its setting in a beautiful country estate.

Dinner for two with wine came to €150.50.