Gregan’s Castle, Corkscrew Hill, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, 065 7077005. www.gregans.ie
There is an old saying that when God was making the world he had some unusual bits left over, and unsure what to do with them he decided to put them all in Co. Clare. I have a huge soft spot for the place, possibly deriving from the pretty Clare girl next door when I was growing up (she was also named Clare), and because it was here that I fell for the Engineer in the early years of our relationship.
I don’t want to sound like a tour guide and you already know about the music, the Cliffs and the Burren, just make sure you add the cooking of David Hurley in Gregan’s Castle to the list.
Gregan’s is not an actual castle but an 18th century manor house and boutique hotel.
Mickael Viljanen of Greenhouse cooked here for a time and made it into a destination, but that seems like an age ago – Gregan’s has been about David Hurley’s food for a long time now.
A quick scene-setting: the dining room is comfortable and welcoming in warm green tones with a fine view of the Burren, service is welcoming, punctilious and effortless.
The menu here has five sections with choices in three of those, but lots of extras are added so this has the feel of a tasting menu but one that (crucially) gives diners some control.
Hurley takes the local (where possible) and finds ways for these ingredients to shine by whatever means necessary.
Discs of pickled local carrots are given a cardamom mousse to soften and broaden the alkaline kick, a powerful umami pop is created when Irish bacon gets matched with brie and truffle and served into a tiny cone (just for fun), and plain old scallop roe is mixed with squid ink and made into a sweet-savoury meringue and sits on identically coloured black stones.
That was just our amuse bouche and it woke up all our senses – from the eye-popping beauty of presentation to the crunch of the cones and the meringue to the bursts of aroma, flavour and textures – we were now utterly focused on our dinner, not on the view.
The wine list is broad and of decent length with very fair pricing and I like that it concentrates its efforts on wines priced between €30 and €50, you know, the kind of wines you are likely to buy.
A glass of biodynamic Fleury Champagne for the Engineer (birthday girl) was rich and elegant and almost a steal at €17 per glass. Fosso del Nibbio 2012, an organic 100% Sangiovese from Montecucco in Southern Tuscany was chosen purely because I had never heard of it – this is a list you can trust.
It was stunningly good – packed with limpid red cherry fruits yet taut, complex and savoury, the bottle age had allowed every one of its million flavours to meld into something other – something grand. And it cost just €34.
It turns out this too is local as it is imported by a member of the family that makes it and operates the nearby Russell Gallery in New Quay – more reasons to return. I’m running out of space. Quick mentions then of the delicate Burren Lamb Tartare offset by white turnip and anchovy mayonnaise; the innate meatiness of glazed Halibut given focus by some ham ravioli, contrast from cauliflower and rounded out with an almond brown butter.
Intoxicatingly creamy cured foie gras was accented by a disc of gingerbread, ripe peach and almond sorbet; Veal chop and Sweetbread topped with a fried cabbage leaf looked like the Poulnabrone Dolmen and was just as wondrous; White Chocolate and Raspberry were off-set with a revelatory celery and thyme sorbet, Blackcurrant soufflé with a blackcurrant sorbet and a sheep’s milk yoghurt to pour into its fluffy depths. This is precise and incredibly thoughtful cooking, it is expressionist but never abstract, the flavours are grounded and real. Star ingredients are given a perfect cast of other flavours to show them at their best – Hurley is like the genius that hired Merry Clayton to sing on Gimmie Shelter, but he does it on every single song - these are not tunes you will easily remove from your head.