Bells, whistles . . . and a pitch perfect dinner

It’s a measure of his talent that even when Mickael Viljanen is away from his kitchen, it still wows with every mouthful, writes…

It's a measure of his talent that even when Mickael Viljanen is away from his kitchen, it still wows with every mouthful, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

I WONDER IF THE owners of Gregan’s Castle were tempted to go down the tax-break tavern route: the extra wing of key-carded rooms, a marble-lined spa, golf course and holiday homes in the grounds? Instead they did something very simple with their family hotel near Ballyvaughan in Co Clare. They kept it comfortable and charming and they flew in a man from Finland to take over the kitchen.

We arrive in a flurry of runaway dog and children and disturb the resident swallow which has built a nest in a nook in the porch. Later, in the calm of the dining room, I have time to sit and soak in the view. Three stone hills slope down to Galway Bay and the sky changes from puffs of Disney pink to a deep Paul Henry purple. Outside, the swallows swoop over the chocolate box red roses, which have been dotted round the tables in vases.

The sky is not the only drama tonight. Chef Mickael Viljanen has been called away to hospital for the possibly imminent birth of his third child. It will be a test of this chef to see if his team can keep the show on the road with a pretty full dining room while he is attending to more important things.


We choose the six-course offering at €65 a head and a bottle of Chardonnay Viognier (€28). Canapés come on a rectangle of slate, four tiny morsels lined up inviting me to eat them as I would read them: left to right.

There are luscious shards of marinated salmon in a glass, then a tiny rectangle of honey-coloured jelly. This is baked potato jelly, taking the crunchy toasty flavour of the warm insides of a potato skin and distilling it into a jelly. Next is a beetroot meringue sandwiched with a smoked eel cream, a taste and texture sensation. Finally a small nut-sized fried croquette of pigs head terrine which is dense and deeply flavoursome.

I’ve gone for the scallops next and they come perfectly cooked. One has a hazelnut caramel baked on top, flavour partners made in a very special corner of heaven. The other scallop is bathed in a cauliflower foam. There’s a griddled baby leek and tiny dustings of ash which taste like the scrapings off a barbecue. There are smoked apple cubes dotted around. Sprigs of wood sorrel are a tangy and stringy top note to all the smoother flavours. On the side is a tiny matchbook-size toasted quail sandwich. This alone made the drive from east coast to west worth every “are we there yet?” mile.

My only regret is not asking for more bread to mop up everything from the slate, cutlery scraping on slate being a Very Bad Sound. Liam’s pressed fois gras (the alternative second course) is “wondrous”.

Next is rabbit with a medley of carrots. The humble new season carrots have been pickled, pureed, burnt, creamed, and generally made to do jazz hands tricks all over the plate. The rabbit has been roasted, schnitzel-ed and had morsels of its liver and kidney added to the plate. There are mushrooms here too, the long stalkey ones that look like alien eyeballs. It’s amazing, everything good from a wood in one place.

By the dessert stage the lights of Salthill have started twinkling across the bay and a few bursts of fireworks are happening above them. My blackcurrant soufflé is eggy and crisp and simple, with a sorbet on top and a jug of blackcurrant coulis, such a quintessential Irish summer flavour to pour into its moist, marbled depths. Liam’s raspberry pavlova has just a few too many things on the plate. “There are at least 10 different ideas here,” he says. We may have reached the “less is more” stage of the night.

The petits fours with coffee and a mint tea are no less intriguing. A eucalyptus marshmallow has a touch of Vicks about it and a cube of something with fennel tastes to our palates exactly like turf fudge. Not in a bad way.

Eating Mickael Viljanen’s food is pleasure enough. Eating it on a summer’s night looking out at one of the country’s most spectacular views counts as my most enjoyable meal of the year.

Finland is one of the only other European countries to have a landscape anything like the Burren. Maybe that resonance explains how Viljanen is doing such magical things with Irish ingredients. Earlier this year the AA gave his kitchen three rosettes. The Michelin inspectors have been, and suggested that he simplify things. Whether 2012 holds a star for him or not, the memories of his cooking are still making us smile.

Dinner for two with drinks (a prosecco €7 and a glass of French syrah €9), and wine, came to €154.00. (The €65 per head was reduced to €55 due to the slightly restricted offering the night we were there.)

Gregan's Castle

Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, tel: 065-7077005

Facilities: Ye olde comfort aplenty

Music: Classical piano concertos the night we were in Wheelchair access: Yes

Food provenance: In plentiful supply both on the menu and from the excellent waiting staff.

Stop for lunch Cafe beo

Kinvara has plenty of places to eat, but we liked the look of the Burrenbeo Centre on the main street as a stop-off place. It's small, but nicely done, with blue-painted windows setting off the stonework in this old shop nicely. Inside we had a bowl of lovely tomato and pepper soup with a good nutty home-made brown bread, two coffees, two brownies with cream and two hot chocolates with enough mini-marshmallows on the top to delight boys. The place has plenty of colouring pencils, wooden blocks and even a little wooden Ban an Tí to sit in her rocking chair and take it all in.

Café Beo, Burrenbeo centre, Main St, Kinvara, Co Galway, tel: 091-638096