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Rathsallagh House
Phone: 045 403112

Ireland's Blue Book is, not surprisingly, a blue-covered brochure that lists the Irish Country Houses and restaurants that form the association. All are owner-managed. It has some very prestigious names in it: Ballymaloe, Assolas, Ballylickey, Longueville and Rathsallagh to name but a few.

A moist and misty Thursday had us travelling to the southern reaches of County Wicklow to Dunlavin where Rathsallagh House is situated amid 530 acres of parkland and golf course. It was once stabling, and was converted to Rathsallagh House in 1798. It's a long, low, two-storied house with a large arch in the centre allowing access to the yard and parking. Paned Georgian windows, not entirely symmetrical, surrounded by ivy and Virginia creeper, fill the long facade harmoniously. A large sweep of lawn runs uninterruptedly into the parkland and golf course where mature oaks and beeches stand defiant of little white balls.
There is no doubt that this is a beautiful house, and one that I would happily live in. Looking through The Blue Book I am struck by how many big houses around the country have become hotels and restaurants. Never having owned a big house I can only guess that the running costs are horrendous and that just possibly running the house as a hotel might seem a solution. A family can at least keep their ancestral pile intact. I can't imagine anything worse for someone with a sense of history than being the one in a long, unbroken line of generations that finally manages to lose the house. But the thought occurs: does owning a grand house necessarily equip you for running a hotel? I can think of some people that I've met who have walked this road, and I can say that they were singularly ill-equipped to be hoteliers or restaurateurs. In a way it's easier to be a hotel. If you can provide a beautiful place with sumptuous bedrooms, manicured views and fine antiques in gracious rooms, then already you're giving value for money.
The trouble with a restaurant in a hotel is that you get no time to enjoy any of that, and anyway that's not what you're paying for. All you can judge is the food and the diningroom itself, which makes comparisons with other restaurants somewhat fairer. What public rooms I did see in Rathsallagh are delightful: comfortably furnished, charming and elegant. To my taste each one of them was preferable to the diningroom itself which appeared to me to be literally an afterthought - a new wing appended onto one end of the house. It's a long, slightly irregularly-shaped room, that is comfortable and unthreatening in the way that a club dining-room is. It's decorated with wood-panelling and brass sconces, a fine marble fireplace, an imposing silver epergne filled with fruit and hunting prints on the walls. Functional and purpose-built it may be, but somehow it lacks the style of the rest of the house. Call me old-fashioned, call me a pernickety pedant, but comfortable as they are, reproduction balloon-back chairs and Queen Anne surroundings don't fit terribly well together.
Since one of our party was celebrating a birthday, we began our lunch rather extravagantly with a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal 1989. Good champagne - and that is very definitely good champagne - is inclined to put me in a good mood, a state of mind that didn't change during the course of a long afternoon. The wine list in Rathsallagh is a little uninspired and surprisingly short given its reputation. One page of white wines ranging from 12 to 40, one page of reds ranging from 11 to 29, and a page and a half of assorted Bordeaux ranging from 35 to 150. From it we chose a Pomerol, Chateau Bourgneuf 1988, and a Meursault 1994, both excellent.
Dinner in Rathsallagh is seven nights a week, but lunch is a variable feast. If there happens to be a conference on, then there is lunch, otherwise it's soup and sandwiches. On the day the 20 lunch menu came beautifully presented on faux parchment tied up with a ribbon. It also comes with no choices, which I often find a blessing. It's one less thing to have to think about. On this particular wet Thursday it began with vegetable soup which was good but unremarkable, and it was followed by 'Salad of artichokes and Italian ham with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette' which was superb. I could taste a very good olive oil in the vinaigrette, the artichoke hearts were big and firm, and the flavours worked together well with a good quality prosciutto. Just to prove that it's not possible to please everyone, one of our party liked neither olive oil, artichokes or Italian ham and asked if it would be possible to have something in its place. In next to no time he was presented with thinly sliced melon arranged so as to appear to be a large rose. Impressive.
Rack of Wicklow lamb with tomato and rosemary sauce was the main course. Three pink, succulent cutlets each, their tails trimmed so that the bone was exposed just enough to get a strong finger-grip on. This was served with garlic potatoes, a ratatouille, cauliflower, mashed potatoes, mangetouts and to my intense delight, nestling under the lamb, perfectly cooked chanterelles, quite the nicest wild mushrooms with the exception of ceps.
The conversation around the table had been so lively that it was only during the main course that I began to realise that apart from our boisterous table of seven there was only one other table of four men in the dining-room. Had we been two rather than seven and somewhat less boisterous, we might have felt a little lost in such a large room. The only moment of passing discomfort was when we were talking noisily and rudely about people who were not present and suddenly became aware of being overheard. I can only hope that the names meant nothing to the other table.
Dessert came in the form of profiteroles with clove icecream, prompting me to remember that in Italian they are often referred to as 'palle di Lumumba' which I'm not going to translate. Good choux pastry and a decent chocolate sauce. Since we were in the happy position of not having to drive, a bottle of Chateau de L'Abbaille 1988 from the Sauternes helped the cream-filled balls go down a treat.
Throughout our long lunch I was blissfully unaware of the service. Nothing distracts more from good food than constantly trying to catch a waiter's eye. Thankfully it was never necessary: the service was unobtrusive and efficient. As an example, we were never in the position of having to ask for more water; the jug was replaced whenever it was empty. This thoughtful attention allowed us to singlemindedly get on with the serious business of celebrating life with food and wine.
I may be unlikely to make the trip to Rathsallagh House again for lunch; but it has much more to offer than that. I suspect it's a place best enjoyed by staying there, when there would be time to unhurriedly enjoy all that it has to offer.

Paolo Tullio 2002

Reviews in this section are from "The food and wine net".