Top of my list for meal of the year

Miche­lin- starred chef Danni Barry has set her dial to daz­zle

The Irish Times Magazine - - FOOD -

In­side a low stone build­ing that smells of flag­stone floors and old­ness, we are sat in an up­hol­stered nook be­side a coal fire. There’s a sign on the wall that tells us we’re in “the naughty corner”. The ta­bles are made with iron Singer sewing ma­chines bases. Any minute Mrs Tig­gy­win­kle might shuf­fle in shyly with a batch of freshly ironed hand­ker­chiefs. Be­cause if Beatrix Pot­ter did decor, Cleneghans would be her flag­ship project.

When restau­rants dial up the twee they tend to dial down the food am­bi­tion. Beau­ti­ful old build­ings often house tired ideas. It’s as if their own­ers are so flogged from keep­ing the place stand­ing that they slap in a carvery cab­i­net, fill the chest freezer with York­shire puds, snap lam­i­nated menus into faux leather binders and con­sider it job done. Cleneghans is not that kind of restau­rant. Miche­lin- starred chef Danni Barry ar­rived here be­fore Christ­mas, fresh from her suc­cess with Michael Deane’s Belfast restau­rant Eipic. It was a big leap from a city- cen­tre place to this gor­geous old inn set in rolling pas­tures on the side of a road. She has set her dial to daz­zle. Not with foams, gold leafery and tweez­ers but with the kind of food that re­minds me of the mo­ment I first fell in love.

It’s the sauce on my fish that rings that mem­ory bell. I’m a teenager in an­other side- of- the- road restau­rant some­where in ru­ral France tast­ing a silky but­tery re­duc­tion un­like any­thing I have ever had be­fore. De­li­cious­ness squared and a life- long love of restau­rants born. Here it’s a nut- brown pond of sauce sit­ting around a hake fil­let wrapped in hispi cab­bage. Hake and hispi are a bit of a trope these days, the cab­bage leaf al­most as ubiq­ui­tous as orange crumb.

But here the cab­bage is mag­i­cal, like a veined green skin that grew on the fish when it reached land, its green­ness glossy like those let­tuce- leaf Carl­ton Ware salad bowls all the rage at ’ 70s din­ner par­ties. Then there’s that glori- ous but­ter sauce and some cau­li­flower purée for ex­tra smooth­ness.

Be­fore we get there, we’ve had a pa­rade of so many other i mpres­sive things: a por­tion of dulse but­ter look­ing like a rugby- ball- shaped quail’s egg along­side a pot of soft salmon ril­lette made up of thready tum­ble of poached and smoked salmon with lacy crisp but­tered sour­dough toasts. There have been ac­tual quail’s eggs cloaked in sausage meat and bread crumbed and cooked so that a bright yel­low yolk slides out of the “wee scotch eggs” like a kitchen con­jur­ing trick. Crab with but­ter­milk and ap­ple com­bines two kinds of sweet­ness of seafood and fruit with tang and rib­bons of charred cab­bage. If I had to pick holes I’d have liked some crunch with this but it’s a tiny quib­ble.

There’s a plate of prop­erly im­pres­sive goat and beet, the cheese in curd form so it’s still al­most liq­uid and gos­samer del­i­cate in flavour, a whis­per of goat rather than the usual holler. Beets have been salt- roasted and sliced into sweet rounds with a sharper beet purée and pol­ished brown lin­seeds baked into nutty chewy crack­ers, health food with the taste turned up.

Along­side that hake, the other main is a com­bi­na­tion of roasted but­ter­nut squash and pasta tubes baked to­gether with ri­cotta, like the crispy bits on top of the best mac­a­roni cheese. There is sage and ( how great a thing is this?) a slab of gar­lic bread, the quen­nelle of green pesto on top made from the soft­est wild gar­lic on top of a but­tery slice of toast. A baked ap­ple sounds like a gas­tro- pub sta­ple but in the hands of this kitchen it’s some­thing much more spe­cial. Slices of ap­ple baked to a mud brown are laid side­ways like rib­bons on crisp bis­cu­ity pas­try topped with a wal­nut crumb and fin­ished with an aer­ated cus­tard. A choco­late tart col­lapses un­der the fork to a soupy fon­dant cen­tre with co­conut ice cream on the side. Bounty Bar eat your heart out. The desserts are some of the best pas­try cheff­ing on the is­land. They come in at un­der £ 5 apiece.

T h e y h a v e t h r e e r o o ms a t Cleneghans. Next time I’m book­ing o n e o f t h e m t o s e t t l e i n t o t h e creaky- staired ro­mance and magic of this spe­cial inn. Danni Barry is a star and in this old, low stone build­ing her food has found a place to truly shine.

Lunch for two with sparkling wa­ter and a cof­fee came to £ 91.40 (¤ 108.30).

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