The Ice House on the river Moy in Ballina has got a new chef. Not just any chef, but Matt Fuller, lately of the Fitzwilliam Hotel, our chef of the year, and in my opinion the most exciting cook in the country right now.
The Ice House looks like what it is, a Victorian house built for - you guessed it - keeping ice in. This was the ice that packed the Moy salmon which used to be exported in vast quantities to Scotland from Ballina. The original house has been sensitively incorporated into a new build, most of it invisible from the road. But from the river side you can see what an extraordinary piece of architecture it is. The spa and its relaxation rooms and suites are built so that the balconies open onto the river and at high tide the water laps right up to the walls. The hotel rooms are the other side of the Ice House itself, and like the spa side, the rooms have views over the river. The dining room also overlooks the river and part of it is the brick-vaulted chamber where the ice used to be stored.
Once inside the front door you find yourself in a world of chic. And I want to be clear here, not chic for Ballina, but chic as you might find it in Milan, London, Barcelona or New York. This is ultra chic boutique with high levels of design and finish. There’s a use of textures in the interior which I found delightful, amusing, interesting and unusual. Apart from the natural brick, stone and wood, there are wall finishes that had me touching them to see how they were done and I loved the occasional floor rug which looked as though they were made from river pebbles. Fine art adorns the walls, every angle holds a carefully composed feature of furniture, furnishings and objets d’art.
The dining room is called the Pier House, a part of it is the old ice storage room, a part of it is a newly constructed glass extension and a part of it is outside, where thick black limestone tables line the terrace overlooking the Moy and the Belleek forest on the far side.
Matt had only newly arrived and was still designing his menus, so it’s still a work in progress, but regardless, his work in progress is still better that most people’s masterpieces.
The bar menu has been completely re-done, and some of his staples have made an appearance. Before cooking in Salon des Savoirs in Dublin, when he was nominated as Chef of the Year, and way before Paolo Tullio described his risotto as “probably one of the best risottos I've ever eaten”, Matt cooked in Spain an his tapas menu is brilliant. Add in some Kataifi prawns, a lobster roll with home cooked fries and a Spanish white bean stew, and it’s a bar menu with a special difference.
The dinner menu was a work in progress in late April, but depending on when you are reading this, it’s probably done. Expect great things from a man who uses Iberico pork cheeks with roast pineapple, makes a washing line of potato crisps for a very amusing ‘amuse bouche’ and who wowed everyone with a dessert of strawberry and basil soup.
The Ice House was always an outstanding destination, and it now has the kitchen to match. I wonder will the Michelin men be calling anytime soon? Brilliant.
As a rule I don’t take much interest in spas, I’d rather sit in an armchair and do a crossword when I want to relax. But over the years a few of them have struck me as being particularly beautiful - for example the spa in Kenmare’s Park Hotel and the spa in Mount Juliet. The Chill Spa in the Ice House is also very striking and has the sort of fragrant, gently lit hush that we once associated with cathedrals. I suspect massage therapy is becoming the new route to self-enlightenment