Review: Confident cooking that makes full use of the local larder

If you're looking for a treat, you'll find it here. Well-defined flavours from a creative kitchen

   

Gregans Castle Hotel

  • Proprietor: Simon Haden Frederieke McMurray
  • Corkscrew Hill, Gragan East, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare
  • 065 707 7005
  • www.gregans.ie
  • Irish

On a recent visit to the Burren I was doubly lucky. We had a week of amazing weather, and I managed to snag one of the few tables for non-residents at Gregans Castle in Ballyvaughan. It was here that Mickael Viljanen first attracted attention (before his move to The Greenhouse and most recently to Chapter One) with his Nordic take on tasting menus. In many ways, he put down a marker for the style of food here, which was continued by David Hurley and, most recently, by Robert McCauley, who took over in 2018.

As if it’s one big game of musical chairs, the first person to greet us is Alex Talenton, the restaurant manager, who worked with Viljanen in The Greenhouse a few years ago. He’s a top sommelier and the wine list here has all the evidence of it – well-chosen bottles, many from small producers, although little below €40.

We’ve opted for the nine-course tasting menu for €95 (there is a shorter six-course menu for €80) and, expecting it to be a bit of a marathon, we start with a glass of Tuffeau (€12), a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley; and line up a bottle of Telmo Rodriguez’s Godello (€45) to see us through the meal.

It seems that every tasting menu these days starts with a tiny tartlet in a delicate, fluted pastry case, and here it is a seductive mouthful of Cáis Na Tíre cheese, light as a foam, and topped with crunchy flecks of sweet bacon jam. Equally light is a cod brandade, which is eaten with perky radishes from the garden and a seaweed cracker, which has the texture of a potato puff.

Puffed wild rice adds a playful crunch to our next bite, a small, saline Flaggy Shore oyster in a Thai-inspired dressing that pings with pickled ginger and chilli.

Doonbeg crab, garden turnip and Ballyvaughan apple
Doonbeg crab, garden turnip and Ballyvaughan apple

McCauley doesn’t overcomplicate things. Doonbeg crab, hidden below small discs of baby garden turnip and a few micro leaves, is lightly dressed with barely discernible tiny cubes of apple; it tastes of itself, sweet, fresh and clean.

The foie gras course looks beautiful – a disc, cut from a skilfully formed torchon, sits in a pool of apricot juice scented with lemon balm and a touch of cinnamon, surrounded with segments of apricot. The foie gras is surprisingly lacking in the savoury flavours you expect, something I’d imagine is more associated with the lobe of foie gras than the cooking of it. It’s a disappointment, and even if it had been a better piece of foie, the lemon balm and cinnamon were just a little bit discordant.

You seldom see monkfish on a menu these days, but it’s here and it’s local, from the Aran Islands. Sitting on top of green olive tapenade in butter sauce, it’s been pan-fried gently until golden on top. It is a well-composed dish, a quenelle of burnt aubergine adds depth, and there’s a delicate sweetness from a fresh langoustine out of its shell, and a courgette flower filled with a mousseline.

Sarrade foie gras, apricot, gingerbread and lemon balm
Sarrade foie gras, apricot, gingerbread and lemon balm

Just nudging the flavours into a taste of autumn is east Clare venison with salt-baked celeriac, Burren truffle, girolles and red kale. Hazelnuts and crispy bits add a good textural crunch to the venison, which is rare and has been cooked over ash and hazel on the barbecue.

Desserts are suitably light. A financier – an almond cake – is topped with black fig and served with a quenelle of ice cream made from Ballyvaughan honey and scattered with rose petals. The Manjari chocolate is a glossy mousse, again, not too heavy. A crunchy base and a pistachio crisp add texture, and a quenelle of ice-cream made from local milk cleanses the palate.

Petits fours, tiny meringues and truffles from a humidor, finish the meal.

This is confident cooking with well-defined flavours. McCauley makes full use of the local larder on his carefully balanced menu and clearly has the confidence to edit and pare back where necessary. Although you’ll be sitting down for a few hours working through the courses, you won’t feel over-stuffed by the end of the meal, which is not always the case with multi-course menus.

Gregans Castle falls very much into special occasion territory, and if you want to stay over, you’re into serious money. But if you’re looking for a treat and you’re in the Burren, this is it.

Dinner for two with a bottle of wine and two aperitifs was €259

  • Verdict: Restrained and confident cooking
  • Facilities: Smart, although no fluffy towels
  • Music: Lounge and Latin, just audible
  • Food provenance: Hyper local and impeccably sourced
  • Vegetarian options: Vegetarian, vegan and all dietary requirements with advance notice
  • Wheelchair access: Room is accessible but no accessible toilet