The more you travel, the more you eat out, the harder it becomes finding a place that is really special. It’s not just about how much money you spend though these places rarely come cheap. A great location helps, as does good service but the single most important factor, I’ve come to the conclusion, is that the people who are running the place are hands on.
The Old Convent ticks pretty well all the boxes - except one, of which more later. Its proprietors Dermot and Christine Gannon live in the building and run the place virtually single-handed. It occupies a strikingly beautiful building in an unspoilt location at the foothills of the Knockmealdown mountains in Co Tipperary which I could see as I lay in my bath.
The public rooms are furnished in great style. The dining room is lit by candlelight. And the food is fabulous - some of the boldest, most creative, most exciting cooking I’ve come across this year.
The dinner menu is a six course affair which may irk some. You go into the dining room at the same time and are served at the same time which results in a few lengthy waits and hungry moments when you wish you had a bit of bread to nibble (strangely not forthcoming) But the food when it arrives is so stimulating these minor quibbles seem irrelevant.
Highlights were a bold warm starter salad of 20 hour cooked Dullahollow pork belly with Cashel Blue cheese, sliced pear, pistachio praline and lightly pickled mangetout (left), a terrific combination of contrasting flavours and textures, a silkily smooth butternut squash velout given an unconventional twist with a trickle of nutty argan oil and a more than generous main course dish of rare organic beef fillet served with slow-cooked beef ribs seasoned (we reckoned) with star anise and orange and served with a sweet potato and parsnip gratin and some wicked little sauted potatoes, a dish that on its own was worth at least half the 60€ cost of the meal.
There was also an incredibly umami-rich dish of hake wrapped in prosciutto served with ‘lobster cream mac’n’cheese’ and parmesan toast, two desserts (a Kahlua and cream ice-cream ‘martini’ and a decadent chocolate fondue that arrived with a plateful of goodies including home-made cheesecake, coconut macaroons, strawberries, raspberries, cherries and various other kinds of fruit. Just pure child-like pleasure. And a couple of ‘OC’ mini cupcakes to finish.
I even like the passionfruit and lemon and ginger sorbets we got mid-meal and I really don’t like sweet sorbets in between savoury courses, not least because they destroy whatever wine you’re drinking.
Ah, the wine. The only weak point of the meal. Its not that the list was bad it was just ultra-cautious, in no way matching the boldness of serving a no choice meal of vigorous flavours. There were two very dull Australian wines by the glass, some uninspiring half bottles and not many full bottles that would have seen you right through the meal.
As it was a special occasion we splashed out on one that would - a Billecart-Salmon brut rserve champagne that loved the starter, the lobster mac’n’cheese and, surprisingly, the beef and a lovely half bottle of Domaine Cauhaup Jurancon Symphonie de Novembre (one of the highlights of the list) that was fantastic with the cupcakes and managed to cope with the Kahlua martini and the chocolate fondue but it would have been great to have had some more options by the glass or interesting half bottles to play with. (I gather the Gannons are currently overhauling the list and planning to introduce wine pairings.)
Breakfast the next morning was equally stunning with an inventive range of hot dishes (my baked eggs with smoked salmon and mascarpone was gorgeous) and some delicious fruit martinis of locally produced yoghurt piled up with fresh fruits, a clever and easy idea to copy for a brunch.
One other clever thing. There was a mini kitchen where you could make yourself tea, coffee or hot chocolate, help yourself to fruit or a snack or raid the fridge for fresh fruit juices. Having fed you so royally they must be confident that no-one would feel remotely inclined to abuse their hospitality.
All in all the OC, as it calls itself, is a great place to go for a special weekend away. Start saving now.The Old Convent is open for dinner bed and breakfast from Thursdays to Sunday nights inclusive.
I have written an article about Christmas entertaining ideas from The Old Convent which will appear in the December 2008 issue of Decanter.