There's a habit that restaurant reviewers can easily fall into, and that's always going to newly opened restaurants. It's tempting to do that because each new restaurant is a beacon of hope, it's another possibility for finding that elusive thing -- a perfect meal. We go to newly opened restaurants because even if we don't find that elusive perfection, at least we can let you know about what we did find.
And yet there are restaurants that continue to shine for years, consistently turning out excellent meals. Obviously we can't keep reviewing the same places, but, once in a while, it's a good idea to go back to a place to see how it's been doing.
Tinakilly House opened up as a hotel and restaurant a long time ago, so long ago that I was still running my restaurant at the time. William and Bee Power were the people who opened it and my then wife and I used to eat there when we weren't working in our place. We're talking here of the mid-1980s.
Tinakilly is a fine Victorian house in handsome grounds in Rathnew, Co Wicklow. It was built for Captain Robert Halpin, a seaman whose exploits included laying transoceanic cables. He was the commander of 'The Great Eastern', Isambard Kingdom Brunel's steamship, and Halpin's reward from the British government for his successful cable laying was Tinakilly House.
A long avenue leads to the house from the old N11 and you find the house on a rise with views over the Broadlough to the sea, a fitting view for the Captain.
I went there for dinner this week with my friend Patrick Walsh, a fine artist and a one-time chef who still has a passion for good food. The lobby and way to the restaurant has maritime paintings galore, old maps and memorabilia from a sea-faring life, so even if you didn't know the house's history, you'd have a clue from the surroundings.
The dining room is unmistakably a hotel dining room, with upholstered carvers and dark wood. It has large sash windows all around that allow views of the gardens and let in lots of light. It's laid out on a couple of levels, which breaks up the space, making it seem more intimate.
What brought me back to Tinakilly after many years was their new French chef. His name is Guillaume Lerays and he worked with the great French chef Bernard Loiseau, who ran the three-star La CÃ´te d'Or until his unfortunate suicide.
With a great French pedigree like that, I was keen to see what Guillaume's food tasted like. We took a table by the window and were given some breads and the menu, which was Ã la carte. The first thing I noticed was that most of the starters were €13.50 and the main courses were mostly between €26 and €30, not including potatoes, which added another €3.50.
If you pitch your prices at this level, then you have to provide food that is well above average. Given the chef's provenance, that seemed like a good bet.
I let Pat check out the wine list, as I was the designated driver and he was the desig-nated drinker.
He chose one of the house selections, a Pinot Grigio at €24.50, which was a pleasant enough wine and we had two bottles of sparkling water as well. So our order went like this: scallops followed by grilled halibut for Patrick, and tuna followed by lamb for me.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche, a delicious pastille of reduced lobster stock served with beetroot and frisée leaves on a bed of toast. Delicate, well designed and tasty -- just what an amuse bouche should be.
Our starters arrived and I'll admit I was thinking to myself, "So nouvelle cuisine isn't dead yet". Do you remember the shock when it first arrived on these shores?
The portions were soooo tiny. I'm the first to say 'good food isn't about quantity, it's about quality', but these were small portions. Patrick had a nicely presented plate on which were either two small scallops or one cut in two.
Two rounds of beetroot and two stripes of horseradish purée completed the plate.
I was presented with a small cube of tuna, nicely seared and served on a sweet pepper purée, with three of those large capers that come with their tails.
Delicious as both of these starters were, they were by any standards small. Not a problem if you're a diet-conscious size six, but larger men might find themselves under-fed.
The main courses were somewhat larger, thankfully.
Patrick was presented with a fine piece of halibut that had been cooked Ã point and with it came six white asparagus spears covered in a well-made Hollandaise.
I had half a dozen slices of pink loin of lamb fanned out on the plate with the slow-cooked neck, shredded and formed into a small tian alongside. A row of beans, like a small necklace, divided the meats.
What I did notice about both of these dishes was that there must have been an edict in the kitchen never to overcook vegetables, because the beans on my plate and the asparagus on Patrick's plate were almost totally raw.
Healthy, no doubt, but hard work to eat. And watching Patrick trying to cut his asparagus with a fish knife made for interesting viewing.
We shared a dessert, a crème brÃ»lée, one of Patrick's signature dishes. It was one of the best either of us have eaten. Not fancied up with fruit tastes, just the classic brÃ»lée and very well done, tasting of real vanilla pods.
Another glass of red for Patrick, then espressos and petit fours for both of us ended the meal and brought the bill to €136.50 without service charge.
A good meal, certainly, competently executed as well, but as we talked in the car going home, we agreed no 'wow' factor.
VALUE FOR MONEY 6/10
- Paolo Tullio
Originally published in