I know the road there well now, and since the opening up of the new motorway to Athlone the journey has become a doddle. I can get there in about 100 minutes from Annamoe, or about an hour and twenty from Dublin. I mention this because if you still think that Athlone is a long drive from Dublin, it's not any more. You could easily drive there, eat and drive back to Dublin. Mind you, if you did that you'd miss one of the best things about the Wineport, and that's the bedrooms. They are really stunning and every one of them looks over the lake.
The Wineport Lodge is on the shore of Lough Ree, a few miles north of Athlone in Glasson. When I say on the shore, it really is - the lake laps right up under the bedrooms. There's a pier as well, so you can arrive by boat from anywhere on the Shannon complex and apparently a lot of people do just that.
I was there with Marian Kenny and we were joined by friends Roderick and Nuala Downer who drove up from north Tipperary, a drive of about the same time as one from Dublin. It was, as is usual for me, a midweek night and it being autumn, midweek, deep in the country and in the middle of a deep recession, I was taken aback by the dining room. It was packed to the gills – about a hundred and forty people were dining. The other surprise was that it looked completely different to the way it looks on TV. Obviously the lighting wasn't so bright, but the room looked far bigger.
We got a table on the side overlooking the lake, where there are windows the whole length of the dining room. The sun was setting over the lake in a golden orange ball as we sat down, bathing the restaurant in its orange glow. If you want to talk about magical settings, this has to be one of them.
There's a choice of two menus, an à la carte and a table d'hôte, which also doubles as the Sunday lunch menu. The table d'hôte offers two course for €35 and three courses for €44. We decided to divide ourselves over both menu to try as many courses as we could. The table d'hôte has some very interesting dishes, starters include crispy sardines with a fennel and orange salad, a goats' milk paneer with a honey relish, and a selection terrines and parfaits with sourdough bread. Main courses included gnocchi with sheep's' milk ricotta and grilled courgettes; pigeon breast with spiced red cabbage and a juniper reduction, and braised rabbit served with pickled summer greens.
The à la carte menu followed a very similar path, the dishes being a clever mix of adventurous, like the roast marrow bones stuffed with mushrooms and black pudding, and the comfortingly normal, like the dry aged fillet of beef or rib-eye. Creating a menu like this isn't an easy task to perform; trying to please a lot of people and at the same time doing something out of the ordinary, is a delicate balancing act. In my view the menu in the Wineport is a perfect example of how it should be done.
The wine list is a long one and is divided up unusually. Each section is a different price, so there's a section at €25, then €30, €35, €40 and €45. There's also a page of the new smaller size of 50cl bottles rather than the standard 75cl, which are priced at €20. If you buy midweek, Monday to Thursday, there's a 10% discount, although I notice now looking at the bill that our €30 bottles were charged at €30, not €27. For our red wine we picked the excellent Principe de Viana from Navarra, a winery I visited last year, and for the white we played safe and had the Louis Latour Macon Lugny.
Our order went like this: aromatic confit duck leg with hoi sin sauce, Manin Bay crab with asparagus and pink grapefruit, crispy sardines with an orange and fennel salad, and the platter of terrines and parfaits for starters. Then for main courses we ordered the wild pigeon, roast chump of lamb with a girolle risotto, hand-caught King scallops with pork belly and grilled seabass with a roast pepper stew.
Before any of this arrived we got an amuse bouche, a really tasty celeriac soup with a surprise at the bottom, a delicious gnoccho (one gnoccho, lots of gnocchi) flavoured with thyme. Then the starters came and they were good. The only one that I wasn't crazy about was the sardine dish. They're an oily fish, so crumbing them and shallow frying them brings more oil into the dish, unbalancing it.
The extremely full restaurant did mean that there were waits between courses, not big enough to be unsettling, but long enough to notice. What surprised me though, was that the busy dining room didn't seem to affect to quality of the food, which was very good. Our main courses arrived and again we were all well pleased. Again, if I were to be fussy, I wasn't entirely convinced by the pigeon dish. Pigeon is a dark meat, so serving it with dark accompaniments like red cabbage and a juniper reduction means you end up with a very dark plate of food. Given a choice I'd have preferred it served with light, bright accompaniments to balance the darkness of the pigeon.
We managed just one dessert between us, a chocolate fondant, properly done and gooey with chocolate inside. Coffees and teas at €4 each ended the meal, which brought the bill to €275.90 without a service charge.