This week was a special Thursday. We did 'Moncrieff' from the Opera Lane Studios in Cork, and after the show Sean Moncrieff,producer Caroline Clarke and I went out to eat. Which meant I was able to combine all the things that I like in my week.
We decided to try Oysters, the restaurant in the Clarion Hotel, which has been making a name for its food. Before Oysters, there was the excellent Augustine's, so good food is not new to this dining room.
The room itself is quietly understated and well-lit. It had a welcoming feel as we walked in. "As welcoming as the snuffaluffagus cave," said Caroline, which apparently is very welcoming.
There were two menus, an a la carte and a set that offered five courses for €35. These were very much gourmet menus, and seafood is an important part of the kitchen's offerings. I suppose I really should have guessed that by the name, Oysters.
We decided to eat from the a la carte, which was a much longer menu than you'd expect and which read really well. I was thinking that if the dishes came close to the description, we'd also be eating very well. Here are a couple of examples – seafood risotto starter with quinoa, green asparagus, cauliflower and radish priced at €8.50, or cured halibut fillet with fennel, plums and dill mayonnaise at €11.50. Interesting-sounding dishes and at fair prices. By the way, all the prices on the menu were either whole euros or half euros – there were no 95 cents to be seen. That's an honesty I really liked to see.
For starters we ordered a mushroom veloute, a seafood risotto and a quail dish. But before they arrived we got an amuse-bouche, in this case a glass demitasse with cured salmon and mandolin slices of radish with a dill mayonnaise. Whenever you're served an amuse-bouche, your cards are being marked – it says that the meal you're about to be served is aiming high.
A quick look down the wine list and I found a Vermentino, a clean and crisp white wine from Sardinia, one I tend to drink during the summer months. Since between us there was fish and white meat, it seemed like a good choice. A little pricey at €36, but a good wine.
Both the quail dish and risotto were beautifully presented when they arrived, the quail complete with tiny confit legs and the risotto looking really fresh, with bright green sprigs of dill and spears of asparagus. The veloute – a posh word for soup – didn't look like anything more than a bowl of thick, mushroom soup. But the taste, the taste! It was without a doubt the most delicious mushroom soup I've ever tasted.
Mr Moncrieff was impressed with it, and I've noticed over the years that he's not a man who dispenses praise easily. Even Caroline was pleased with her starter, and she's a well-travelled diner.
So the meal began on a high, which so often is a harbinger of a let-down to come. Not on this night, though. Caroline had ordered the prawns, Sean the chicken and I'd gone for the tuna. The prawns were king prawns and they were served with chargrilled oyster mushrooms, asparagus and a squid ink emulsion. They both looked good on the plate and tasted good as well. Sean looked up from his chicken and said: "It may not be exciting as a dish, but it's a really tasty chicken." It was described on the menu as "local chicken", so someone is doing a good job of sourcing.
The tuna was described on the menu as cooked "rose". In my opinion, if tuna is very fresh and of the best quality, it's much better left raw and served as sashimi. I was asked if I was happy with rose, and I said that if the chef thought it good enough quality, I'd have it uncooked. It came fairly well cooked – no disaster, but no thrill for me either.
We went back to the menu for dessert and found cafe gourmand for €9. That turned out to be your choice of coffee with three small desserts served alongside.
We all ordered exactly the same – an espresso with the three desserts – a chocolate pot, a creme brulee and a selection of sorbets. Not only a good dessert, but a really good idea. If this was on more menus, I think I'd order it every time.
Unusually for a hotel, the Clarion clearly has put a high priority on its dining room. I'd be more than happy to return and try some other dishes. The bill was €159.50 for the three of us.