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The Priory

Phone: 045 403355

When a dull, rainy day gives way to a sunny afternoon and evening, the idea of driving across the Wicklow Hills becomes increasingly attractive. Because I've been to Dublin a lot lately, I thought that a drive over the Wicklow Gap and into the plains of Kildare might make a pleasant change. The arrival of longer evenings and better weather makes it less of a trek and more of a pleasure.

I'd heard that The Priory, a road-house on the Carlow road a couple of miles outside Kilcullen, served surprisingly good food and so that seemed reason enough to head for Kildare. Armed with directions from The Priory and an ordnance survey map of Kildare/Wicklow we set off under a cloudless evening sky. At the last moment my daughter needed a lift to Roundwood, so from there, instead of driving across the Wicklow Gap, I thought it might be smarter to do the Sally Gap and go to Blessington. Let me tell you now there is no easy road from Blessington to Kilcullen.

With my wife holding the map, we ended up like most married couples who are lost: fighting. You know the kind of thing; 'You've got the map, why can't you read it?' and 'If you keep shouting I'm going to put the map away, and you can get lost by yourself.' Standard stuff. It was dark by now and I admit the map wasn't easily read by the car's interior light. The County Council isn't too great at putting roadsigns at every junction, which didn't help either. We eventually arrived at The Priory somewhat frazzled at quarter to ten, having been given two bum steers by people who pretended they knew where it was. Slamming the car doors and glaring at each other we went in.

Inside an open fire blazed and a charming lady, who turned out to be the owner, showed us to our table. The dining room is a long 'L' shape and was converted from an old byre. The external walls have been left in the original stone and the inside is decorated with an eclectic array of bric-a-brac which makes for a homely feel. Old sewing machines, brasses, books, what-nots displaying china, some good original paintings and old farmhouse bits and pieces pepper the nooks and crannies. We sat next to another blazing fire and studied the menu. Let's be clear here; this is not a menu for girlies, this is a hungry person's menu. Once I'd seen a twelve-ounce sirloin steak with a Bearnaise sauce on offer there was no going back. Now launched upon the road to calorie heaven, I went for the deep-fried brie as a starter. Susie on the other hand was more restrained. Salmon and prawn fishcakes for starters, and Seafood and Shellfish pie for main course.

The wine list is short, with nothing over £20 except for a champagne. I chose the Faustino V Reserva 93, a lush full-bodied red, priced at £16.95, as a compromise between the meat and fish of our main courses. With a glass of wine each we mellowed and began to discuss the menu. Once upon a time it was my job to construct menus, so I tend to look at them with a critical eye. The Priory's menu has been carefully put together to cover all kinds of tastes from a good old fashioned mixed grill to some of the more imaginative seafood dishes. You can have a simple and cheap burger and chips, or you can splash out on one of the more expensive dishes. There's even a childrens' menu priced between £2.50 and £3.50. Pastas, grills and six chicken dishes complete the menu.

It wasn't so long ago that I used to drive around the country escorting Italian cattle buyers. Stopping in roadside inns in those days meant nothing more than filling your belly. Times have changed, no doubt. You'd never have seen 'warm salad of avocado and bacon bits with a blue cheese dressing' then. Although there are simple standards on The Priory's menu, there's plenty for the more adventurous to choose from.

When the starters arrived my deep-fried brie was exactly as it should be and Susie's fishcakes were quite delicious. All memories of the fraught drive faded away as we ate. Fresh homemade brown bread was an added bonus. Let me describe to you the table as our main courses arrived. A large plate was in front of me upon which lay one of the biggest sirloin steaks I've seen since Roger Lewis ran the Creole restaurant in Dun Laoghaire. In front of Susie was a large bowl of seafood pie with the fattest mussels I've ever seen; between us lay a dish of French fries, a dish of boiled potatoes, a dish of sautéed onions, a dish of gratine potatoes and a dish of mixed vegetables.

Don't let anyone tell you that too much food is a fault in a restaurant; I mean, what kind of problem is that? You can always leave what you don't want. Maybe it's the Italian in me, but generosity with food seems to me to be an honest expression of the truth that food is intended for eating, not for playing with or looking at. Too little food is a problem, no matter how prettily presented. I say this because we left a lot of it - even a big appetite like mine can be thwarted. There was even a brief moment when I thought that I'd never be able to finish my gargantuan steak, but it's amazing what a combination of perseverance and gluttony can do.

By the time we'd finished that lot any thought of dessert was unthinkable. You'd have to fast for a couple of days to work your way through a three-course meal here. We ordered two coffees and two cognacs as digestifs, sipped them slowly and considered what we'd had. Although I'd chosen simple enough dishes, everything we had been given was of the best quality, honestly prepared and presented. Should you like putting names to things, you might call it cuisine grand-mere. If The Priory was closer to my house, I suspect I'd be there quite often. It's the sort of place you can go in large family groups without hurting your bank balance. Even though we'd chosen one of the most expensive wines and the most expensive main courses complete with extras, our total bill came to £54.95, which is more than reasonable.

       © Paolo Tullio 2002
Reviews in this section are from "The food and wine net".