Cauliflower Cheesecake may sound ominously healthy, but trust Michelin-starred Chef Paul McDonald to turn the savory pie into a startlingly original starter. The snow-white cheesecake slice is topped with cured and quick-smoked trout and a dollop of trout roe. The delicate taste and velvety smooth texture of the cauliflower and cheese tart is set off beautifully by the unctuous fish and bold-flavored roe.
The freshwater fish dish seemed right at home--we were seated at a window overlooking a waterfall at Sheen Falls Lodge, a hotel in Kenmare where we spent a lovely weekend in late February.
The chef at Sheen Falls Lodge, Cormac McCreary, was hosting a culinary event he called a "Four Hands Dinner," featuring Paul McDonald and himself. Many of the best restaurants in Western Ireland close in the winter, so this was a welcome opportunity to experience world-class food from top chefs in the otherwise boring off-season.
McCreary served a dish he called Killenure Dexter Beef with broccoli, garlic and Gubbeen. Gubbeen is a local artisan cheese that might remind you of a classic French semi-soft--the rich flavor gave a new dimension to the familiar combination of broccoli and cheese.
Dexter is an ancient Irish cattle breed that yields a stunningly flavorful and relatively tender striploin steak. Once among the most common livestock in Ireland, the little Dexter was abandoned in favor of larger, higher-yielding Angus, Charolais and other modern beef cattle. Recently, the tiny heritage breed has been reintroduced. The unique beef the Dexter produces has become a favorite of Irish chefs.
Sheen Falls Lodge is a regal rustic fishing lodge with roaring fireplaces inside and roaring waterfalls outside. It's part of the Relais & Châteaux hotel brand, a group of hotels known for uniquely luxurious properties including castles, manor houses and the like.
You can fish for salmon in the river that flows through the 15 acres of countryside surrounding the luxurious hotel, or book one of several fishing expeditions with seasoned local fishing guides. There are even fly-fishing workshops for those in need of remedial casting lessons.
Sadly, February is not the season for salmon fishing.
However, the season for SMOKED salmon at Sheen Falls Lodge is year-round - they have their own smokehouse. I chatted with Chef McCreary as he gave me a tour. Born and raised in Ireland, McCreary trained in the UK under chefs Gordon Ramsay and Micheal Caines. He also put in some time in the kitchen at London's legendary Ritz Hotel.
At my request, the chef demonstrated the simple-to-operate cold smoker--oak chips were lit with a blowtorch until they smoldered, then a large chimney pulled the oak smoke through the chamber. Each drawer of chips lasts two hours. This reliable apparatus has been in operation for some 25 years. The chef finds lots of other uses for the smoker. He showed me a tray of beetroots that was already in the chamber when we stopped by.
After visiting the smokehouse, I couldn't resist ordering smoked salmon for lunch in the bar. The sliced salmon salad on the menu was garnished with capers and purple onion bits, the fish was sweet and silky with a mild smoke flavor. Lovely with a pot of tea and some toast.
The Four Hands dinner event was held on Sunday night in The Falls restaurant (that's the hotel's main dining room). There were four courses including the two mentioned above. The first course was a mousse made with artichokes, truffles and an Irish cheese called Coolea. The dessert was a creamy Baked Apple Yogurt with almond crumble and blackberries.
Each course was served with a wine pairing. The stand-outs were a Domaine Seguinot Bordet Petit Chablis served with the Cauliflower Cheesecake and a Cuvée du Papy Rhone red from the St. Joseph region served with the beef.
I met with guest Chef Paul McDonald the next morning. McDonald owns Bastion, a restaurant in Kinsale that recently received a Michelin Star. Quite a feat as there are only 18 restaurants in Ireland with Michelin stars.
Originally from Glasgow, McDonald moved to Ireland at the age of 18. He started working in high end restaurants early on, becoming head chef at the late Bleu Bistro on Dawson Street in Dublin when he was only 21. After stints in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants in London and high-end hotels including Adare Manor in Ireland, he and his wife, Helen, opened Bastion in Kinsale to international acclaim. And as Bastion was closed for the winter, the collaboration dinner gave the hard-working couple a few days to enjoy the natural beauty of the Kerry countryside.
Our route to Kenmare, the town where Sheen Falls Lodge is located, took us through the stunning mountains of Killarney National Park and along the "Ring of Kerry" as far as Moll's Gap. A favorite tourist track, the 111 mile circular ring route around the Iveragh Peninsula in Southwest Ireland takes in some of the most breath-taking scenery in Ireland.
The town of Kenmare is an excellent base for exploring the region, it features hotels at all price points and a raft of good restaurants. On the Saturday night of our arrival, we checked out a few possibilities and ended up at a very popular spot called Mulcahy's Bar & Restaurant . We also heard good things about the atmospheric Lime Tree Restaurant and Tom Crean Fish and Wine, a seafood joint named after an arctic explorer and the grandfather of Aileen Crean O’Brien, the restaurant's chef/owner.
For news about upcoming culinary events, check the Sheen Falls website.