A chef working for an unnamed multimillionaire (I have my theories) got in touch a while back. Sadly he wasn’t offering to dish the dirt on the life of a rich man’s stomach but happily he had a recommendation. It was for a restaurant so far off my radar I would have needed a map, a compass and possibly a divining rod to find it by myself. Ingredients are seasonal, the chef said, and the cooking is stellar. It had a website so terrible it seemed almost deliberately designed to repel any interest. This was going to require a visit in real life to find out if my tipster was a weapons’ grade spoofer.
O’Neills Bistro (they’ve decided one apostrophe is enough) is outside Golden, a Tipperary village which really should have a thriving jewellery, hairdresser or butter business in its heart to go with its name. O’Neills is just out the road in nearby Thomastown, a village of low houses, grain silos and trees.
Those beauties are in their autumn glory as we arrive in beautiful sunshine for a bird so early it’s nearly an early embryo. But O’Neills opens at 5pm and we have a gig nearby at 7.30pm.
It's a chef-run operation serving well-crafted food for the same price as the roadside reheaters who buy from the food service operations and heat it up on demand
The place is in a stone building with a modern extension at the back housing the kitchen and reception lobby. You eat in the old, high-ceilinged beamed part which has the feel of a school room and is decked out in pleather chairs, dark tables, panelling painted in battleship grey and a claret red feature wall. It has the late 1990s feel of a Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen makeover. The tables each have a lovely pink rose (possibly the actual last roses of summer) in a glass, and tealights burning cheerily. Once the freshly made bread arrives we have a feeling this will go well.
It’s brown soda bread made like my mother makes it, the only addition being plenty of seeds both in the mix and on the top.
The starters are where things get fancy, in a good way. Served on dark plates these are beautiful arrangements of good ingredients. There’s sweet thready “Kerry crab meat” dressed lightly and arranged in a circle with scrolls of cucumber very lightly pickled so it tastes of cucumber not pickle, a puree of squash and shards of red onion. The menu mentions a “tomato salsa” but as the last of the tomatoes are on the wane it feels like a proper seasonal tweak not to have that summery staple on the plate.
Alice’s free range chicken terrine is a lovely round of meaty flavour. It’s got more bite to it than the normal moussy chicken liver pate served in this price range. It tastes like something you’d get in a side of the road French bistro where the cook makes her own pickles by the barrel. There’s a soft poached egg on top which spills a rich “country hen” yolk over the whole thing, making chicken and egg at the same time the best answer to that question.
Mains are equally cheffy with a gratin that took hours of prep and cooking beside hake with a butter-crisp skin and a meatier finish than you normally find with this fish. There are dill dauphine, airy gobstopper-sized balls of fluffy potato made by combining pureed potato with choux pastry and lightly frying them in hot fat.
My lamb is a generous plate of rounds of loin luscious and tender meat with chewier more muttony shoulder meat rolled and fried in a snooker ball sized croquette. There’s a cube of boiled spinach which is the only duff note. It’s a soggy reminder of the spinach we had to eat, a bit too retro a treatment of these vibrant fresh leaves. Instead of being boiled and mashed (shudder), turnip has been cubed and finished in butter (better). Long stem broccoli is perfect. This vegetable has been a highlight of my greens intake this year.
These are hefty country portions so we share a dessert, a sweet honey layer cake with a rubble of chewy house made honeycomb around it and some seriously sweet strawberries. Two good coffees get us back on the road just as this hardworking diningroom is filling up.
The chef here is Kenneth O’Neill. He started working when he was 13 in school holidays in the kitchen of Aherlow House Hotel, where his father was head chef for three decades. He went on to train as a chef and opened O’Neills six years ago after the owner of the former incarnation, Lily Mai’s Cafe, put it up for lease. His brother is the front of house. He came home from Canada to work here nearly two years ago.
So that’s O’Neills hiding in plain sight on the side of a country road in deepest horse country. It’s a chef-run operation serving well-crafted food for the same price as the roadside reheaters who buy their menu from the food service operations and heat it up on demand. If you’re passing it’s well worth a visit. Not a word of a spoof.
Dinner for two with sparkling water, shared dessert and coffee comes to €75.
Verdict A bit of a discovery in a quiet corner of Ireland.
Wheelchair access Yes
Vegetarian options Nice
Food provenance Good. Local butcher Eamon Ryan for the lamb and duck from Skeghanore