Sunday, 8 November 2015

Review: Dublin Bar Academy 2-day Cocktail Course

Cocktails are definitely back in fashion and it seems that everywhere is now offering them. Classic cocktails are being reinterpreted to include many of the new drinks from the small bespoke distilleries and micro-breweries that have cropped up in the past few years and mixology is back in vogue. The Dublin Cocktail Festival also took place during October and was a great success with amazing offers across a range of city pubs and venues during festival week. Cocktails are everywhere!

Bar training area
I have always been fond of a well-mixed cocktail and was keen to find out more about making them. Luckily the Dublin Bar Academy runs a 2-day intensive course where participants can learn all about the history of cocktail making and can master the science of mixology.
 
Various drink mixing techniques are covered during the two days and students are also shown how to select the correct glassware and how to garnish cocktails. On completion of the course, participants receive a Dublin Bar Academy certificate and a useful manual containing information about all the topics covered during the two days. Recipes are also included. Previous students have used the course as a springboard to start their cocktail making careers here in Ireland and abroad.
 
Although the course is primarily aimed at those already working in the bar industry, enthusiastic amateurs or those just wanting to develop new skills are also welcomed. The course seemed right up my street so I enrolled and headed up to Dublin for the weekend eager to learn more about the alchemy behind cocktail making!
 
Classroom
The Dublin Bar Academy was set up in 2012 by Richard Linden and Ronan Rogerson and is a branch of the European Bar School. Originally from Sweden, Richard has worked in a number of different countries including five years in the 5 star Chewton Glen Resort in the United Kingdom which regularly appears on lists of the world’s top hotels. Here he honed his bar tending and cocktail making skills. Back on these shores, Richard has worked under Francis Brennan in The Park Hotel in Kenmare and was also Restaurant& Bar Manager in the Michelin starred Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford. In addition to his interest in the Dublin Bar Academy, Ronan owns and runs the popular Drury Buildings in Dublin and was at one time Bar Manager at the Morgan Hotel which is renowned for the cocktails it serves.
 
Old Fashioned
Although originally located on Francis Street, Dublin 8, the Dublin Bar Academy recently moved into lovely new premises in Smithfield. The building is large and spacious and is reminiscent of a New York loft. The main bar area is decorated with a large colourful mural by the Dublin street artist Fink and it is here that students eventually get to work at their own bar station. There is also an opportunity to practice cocktail flairing which, for the uninitiated, is the performance end of cocktail making involving juggling bottles etc. Richard and Ronan also hope to set up their own micro-brewery in the building in the coming months.
 
The first morning was spent in a classroom off the main bar area learning all about how alcoholic drinks are produced. Richard explained the differences between the various spirits and explored the distilling techniques involved in making them. I found this fascinating and very informative. We were all encouraged to ask questions and there was a lively atmosphere in the classroom.
 
Cosmopolitan
Richard then gave us a practical demonstration showing us the different ways to mix cocktails and why certain glassware is chosen. We also learnt how to create simple garnishes to finish off our cocktails and we discovered why ice and the shape of it is so important. At this stage I was realising that cocktail making is not a mere frippery but rather, that it is something taken very seriously. I was hooked! Richard knows his stuff and explained everything simply, in easy-to- understand terminology and answered all the questions we threw at him. He then showed us how to make some classic cocktails and made it seem like something each of us could easily achieve.
 
It was then time for us to get behind the bar and try mixing up some cocktails. This was great fun and although we were all a little awkward at first we soon got the hang of it. I loved every moment. Each bar station was set up with dummy drinks and mixers so that we could get used to the principle involved without wasting expensive alcohol.
 
Bar Station
The first day then finished with a tasting session which, needless to say we all enjoyed. I loved the Dark & Stormy made using dark rum, lime juice and topped up with fiery ginger beer and was also rather taken with the Cosmopolitan which many people will be familiar with as it was the drink of choice for the girls in the popular Sex in the City television series. Made with lemon vodka, Cointreau fresh lime juice and cranberry juice this was a lovely and refreshing. My favourite drink of the day was definitely the Old Fashioned, a boozy concoction made with bourbon, sugar syrup and angostura bitters. It was seriously good.
 
On the second day of the course, Richard showed us how to prepare a number of different cocktails at the one time and again we all got the opportunity to practice for ourselves. The reality is that when you are working in a busy bar you would regularly have to prepare a number of drinks at the one time so this was very useful. We also got the chance to practice some cocktail flairing with Richard’s assistant Callum. This was tremendous fun, and much harder to do than it looks. Thankfully unbreakable bottles are used as we were all flinging them around the place.
 
Espresso Martini
The day finished off with a more detailed tasting session where we got the chance to sample a range of cocktails including a Mai Tai, Vodka Martinis, Manhattans and Espresso Martinis to name just a few. My favourite of the day was the Negroni made with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.
 
The 2 day course cost €249 which for an incredibly enjoyable two days where we all learnt so much about making cocktails was very good value. I would highly recommend it for anyone working in the bar trade or anyone who wants to learn more about making cocktails.
 
Dublin Bar Academy
141 North King Street
Dublin 7
 
Telephone: 0858673296
 
This article originally appeared in TheTaste.ie
 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Review: Afternoon Tea in Clontarf Castle Hotel, Dublin

For me, there is nothing more enjoyable than catching up with friends over a delicious afternoon tea in comfortable surroundings. I find that it is one of the most relaxing things to do and as such, I am always on the look-out for new spots to try.

Afternoon Tea is hugely popular these days and with the number of places now offering it, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find something a little different; something that stands out from the crowd. Therefore, I was excited to learn that Clontarf Castle Hotel had recently introduced a new Fusion Afternoon Tea which prides itself on its eclecticism. This is an afternoon tea that aims to blend tradition with contemporary flavours and I was looking forward to trying it out.
 
Roast Beef
Afternoon tea is served in the grand entrance hall tucked away in a cosy area in front of the magnificent stone fireplace. It was rather chilly on the autumn day that I visited so I was delighted to see that the fire was burning away giving out its welcoming heat. This is a beautiful space where the old parts of the castle meet and blend seamlessly with the modern architecture of the newer hotel. Tastefully decorated with tapestries and suits of armour, this really is the perfect location for afternoon tea.
 
As I read through the menu, it was immediately obvious that a lot of care and attention to detail has gone into creating this afternoon tea. There is a good selection of loose-leaf teas available or coffee if you prefer it. I am a huge fan of tea, so this was my beverage of choice and I started with a pot of Lapsang Souchon – a black tea from the Fujian province of China which has a lovely smoky aroma and a rich flavour but is smooth enough to drink without milk.
 
Salmon & Crab-Meat
Sandwiches were first to arrive and came attractively displayed on a beautiful wooden stand with open compartments where you could see everything easily. The sandwiches all looked so tempting and feeling peckish I wanted to dig in immediately.
 
I loved the Salmon and Crab-Meat open sandwich where diced pieces of salmon, cured in-house in the Hotel’s kitchens were bound together with fresh crab meat in a mayonnaise dressing and came presented on thinly sliced and buttered brown soda bread. This was a simple idea but worked really well and was incredibly tasty.
 
Also delicious was the Chicken Breast infused with Truffle Oil in a Soft Maize Roll. Truffle oil is an ingredient which can overpower everything else unless used sparingly and here just the right amount had been used to create a flavoursome and intensely savoury sandwich. I loved this sophisticated interpretation of a ‘chicken roll’.
 
Chicken-filled Maize Roll
I have always had a soft spot for Egg Mayonnaise sandwiches and really enjoyed the ones served here. The eggs had been cooked perfectly so weren’t in the least bit rubbery. They had been well seasoned and tasted wonderful with the finely chopped spring onions which had also been included in the mixture.
 
The Roast Beef Open Sandwich used 28-day aged sirloin beef which came thinly sliced and was served with a sticky onion marmalade and rocket leaves on rye bread. It was outstanding but my favourite sandwich of the day was the Ham Hock on Brioche. Here shredded ham hock was served between thin slices of toasted brioche and included small crisp onion rings and a mouth-watering whole grain mustard dressing. Heavenly!
 
Ham Hock
I then decided to try a different tea, favouring something lighter and fruitier with the sweet treats that were to come. Rooibos Blood Orange was the perfect choice and with its juicy notes was wonderfully refreshing.
 
Next up was an amazing array of cakes and pâtisserie which were placed on a similar presentation stand as the one used for the sandwiches. Looking at the goodies laid out in front of me, I felt like a child given free rein in a sweet shop and didn’t know which to eat first! Scones were also delivered but it was the individual Victoria Sponge Cake which literally took my breath away. I loved the individual mini glass cake stand that it came presented on. The cake was light with a lovely texture. It was filled with fresh strawberries and cream and included a drizzle of balsamic reduction.
 
Victoria Sponge Cake
A Lemongrass Cheesecake with a crushed ginger biscuit base was full of oriental flavours and was also light to eat. The Textures of Chocolate was inventive and made up of chocolate in the form of Belgian chocolate cremeaux, mousse and glaçage on a cocoa biscuit base. However, my favourite was the mini Salted Caramel Éclair with its filling of vanilla crème patissière. It was iced with a caramel glaze and sprinkled with discernible flakes of Maldon sea salt. I thought it was superb.
 
The Panna Cotta with Rhubarb Compote was the last of the pâtisserie offerings. It came served in an individual glass bowl covered with a glass cloche and was spectacular to look at. The panna cotta was delicately infused with orange oil – a flavour which worked well against the fiery heat of the candied ginger and the crisp sweet meringues.
 
Rhubarb & Ginger
Miniature buttermilk scones finished off this thoroughly enjoyable afternoon tea. Like everything that had gone before, they were well-made and a pleasure to eat. Two types were served; a traditional Fruit Scone and a Raspberry & White Chocolate Scone which was unusual but lovely. The scones were served with homemade Raspberry Jam, Lemon Curd and Clotted Cream.
 
I really enjoyed my afternoon tea in Clontarf Castle Hotel. Although the Fusion Tea has only just been introduced, a lot of thought has gone into developing it. I savoured every mouthful and enjoyed the little flavour surprises along the way. This was an afternoon tea that was pleasing to the eye and to the palate and I would highly recommend it.
 
At €27.50 per person (or €34.95 with a glass of Prosecco), I think that the afternoon tea is well priced. A Children’s afternoon tea (€14.95 per person) is also available.
 
Clontarf Castle Hotel
Castle Avenue
Clontarf
Dublin 3
 
Telephone: 01-8332321
 
 
 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Restaurant Review: Mount Falcon Estate, Ballina, County Mayo

Imagine being taken on a magical journey through a beautiful forest, stopping every now and again to feast on delicious food taken from the surrounding wooded environment… After which you sink into one of the most comfortable beds you have ever slept in and fall into the deepest, most relaxing sleep…

This was something that I experienced recently whilst on a short break away at Mount Falcon Estate. From the moment I arrived I could feel the stresses and strains of everyday life slipping away. Located just outside Ballina in County Mayo this is a stunning property set in a hundred acres of beautiful grounds.
 
Goat's Cheese & Cherry Lollipop
Created by architect James Franklin, who also designed parts of Ashford Castle and Farmleigh for the Guinness family, Mount Falcon was built in 1872 by Ultred Knox as a wedding gift for his new wife Nina Knox-Gore of Belleek Castle. It was the home of the inimitable Constance Aldridge from 1932-2000 and was bought shortly afterwards by the Maloney Family who along with Bruce Dunleavy and Mark Evans developed it into a luxury hotel destination which opened in 2006.
 
Mount Falcon Estate is an ideal destination for anyone who likes fishing as it is situated beside the River Moy which is one of best salmon-fishing rivers in Ireland. During the salmon season, the kitchen will even prepare and cook the fish to serve up to the guests that caught it. Clay-pigeon shooting and archery are offered and keen golfers are also accommodated with a number of top-class golf-courses nearby.
 
Herb Dumpling
There are a number of accommodation options available and guests can stay in the hotel or in one of the self-catering, Swiss-style lodges located on the Estate. I decided to stay in the hotel and loved my beautiful room. Elegantly decorated with a large, comfortable bed, I had every modern convenience within reach. The large bathroom was also fabulous and when I returned to my room after dinner in The Kitchen Restaurant, I decided to indulge myself by having a hot, relaxing bath before wrapping myself up in the fluffy dressing gown-provided.
 
The main purpose of my visit was to dine in the hotel’s award-winning restaurant and having heard great reports about the food on offer, I was dying to try it. Knowing that I was keen to sample a good cross-section of dishes from the menu, Head Chef Daniel Willimont prepared a tasting menu of some of the most popular dishes for me. This memorable meal contained 16-courses and although each individual course was small I felt that I had eaten one of the most spectacular meals of my life.
 
Wood Pigeon
Whilst all the dishes were notable there were a few that I absolutely loved and were of a standard that would rival those in any of Ireland’s top restaurants. There was a playfulness about the food and the way it was presented that I found very appealing. A perfect example of this was seen in the small Goat’s Cheese & Cherry Lolly which kicked off my meal. Simply presented in a cocktail glass, this tasty little treat consisted of soft goat’s cheese covered in a cherry gel on a lollipop stick. Although simple, it tasted heavenly. Similarly, the Garden Purple Turnip & Horseradish Soup came presented hot in a tiny shot glass alongside the lightest ricotta dumpling I have ever eaten. It was amazing how something so small and delicate could be packed so full of flavour.
 
Squid Ink Scallop
Another wonderful dish was the Sous-Vide Wood Pigeon which after being initially cooked in the water bath was then seared in the pan before being served. This was a fabulous dish and when I closed my eyes, it genuinely felt like I was dining in the Estate’s forest. Served with a velvety celeriac purée, an unbelievable crisp and flavoursome kale wafer and some pickled elderberries, each mouthful was a joy to eat.
 
My favourite dish was the Squid Ink Marinated Scallop which was spectacular. Served with cauliflower cooked in a variety of ways, this was beautiful and striking to look at and delicious to eat. The scallop came bathed in a squid ink and dashi sauce which imparted a subtle taste of the sea which highlighted the sweetness of the flawlessly cooked scallop. It literally took my breath away. In many ways this would be a divisive dish which some people would be unsure about because it was so unusual but I loved it.
 
Achill Lamb
Other dishes of Achill Lamb Rack & Braised Leg BonBon and John Dory served with an interesting celery & Yuzu sauce were every bit as delicious and thought-provoking on the palate. There were so many wonderful dishes and I really got a sense of the love that had gone into preparing and cooking each single one.
 
Dining in The Kitchen Restaurant at Mount Falcon Estate is like going on a walk through the estate’s grounds where everything on the plate tastes like the countryside it originated in. So many chefs try to create food that has a sense of place but ultimately find that it is difficult to achieve. Blessed with a bountiful natural larder locally and a real understanding of how to showcase the different ingredients available to him, Daniel Willimont has succeeded in doing this at Mount Falcon.
 
John Dory
My meal finished with two wonderful desserts. The first of which, Apple & Meringue, included a lovely vanilla custard sandwiched between crisp discs of meringue and was served with an apple soup This was served separately and poured over the meringue just before eating. The second dessert - a lovely throw-back to the 1960s – was Crêpes Suzette which was prepared and flambéed in front of me.  Full of boozy, orange flavours, I was reminded why this is such a great way to finish a meal.
 
Daniel offered to bring me on a tour of the Estate’s kitchen gardens so we arranged to meet the following morning. After my lovely breakfast of Pancakes & Poached Eggs, we made our way down to the impressive gardens which are lovingly tended by Head Gardener Alex Lavarde. Many of the ingredients that I had eaten the previous night were grown here and I was dying to see the gardens for myself.
 
Preparing Crepes Suzette
The kitchen garden is located near the entrance to Mount Falcon and just a short walk from the main hotel building and has been developed by Alex and Daniel who have worked in close collaboration. Constance Aldrige, the previous owner, fervently believed that food should never have to travel and this is a philosophy that has been carried through since the hotel and restaurant was opened.
 
Visiting the kitchen garden and listening to Daniel talk about his ideas for future dishes in the restaurant using produce grown in the kitchen garden was truly inspiring. In addition to common-place herbs and vegetables, experimental plants are grown in the immaculately laid out beds and in the poly- tunnels. I was fascinated to see quinoa growing and was impressed by the range of heritage varieties that have been introduced.  Bee hives are situated to one side of the garden and a sizeable orchard is also being developed.
 
My tour through the kitchen garden was a wonderful way to end my brief but thoroughly enjoyable visit to Mount Falcon. Even though I only stayed one night, it was one of the most relaxing breaks I have ever had. The food was outstanding. Service throughout my stay was faultless and nothing was too much trouble. I would recommend Mount Falcon Estate to anyone without hesitation.
 
Mount Falcon Estate
Foxford Road
Ballina
County Mayo
 
Telephone: 096-74472
 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Restaurant Review: The Strawberry Tree at Brook Lodge, Macreddin Village, County Wicklow

Dining in The Strawberry Tree at Brook Lodge in Macreddin Village is a unique experience and one that I will remember for a long time. As Ireland’s only certified organic restaurant, the menu only includes organic or wild ingredients and their provenance is proudly displayed throughout the menu which is opportunistic in its use of ingredients, drawing on what is in season and locally available or can be foraged  nearby. This results in food that is unusual, playful and thought-provoking on many levels.
Due to the availability of ingredients, the menu changes regularly and is constantly evolving but this along with the some top-notch cooking under Head Chef Tim Daly is what makes the food so exciting to eat. I was really looking forward to dining there.
 
Irish Orchard kir Royale
The dining room is spacious and decorated in rich dark colours which are surprisingly soothing. A dark mirrored ceiling makes the room feel even larger but despite this, the overall atmosphere is relaxed and intimate. There are two menus – an à la carte evening menu and a 9-course tasting menu which I decided to go for.
 
A selection of Warm Breads was first to arrive and came swaddled in a linen napkin to preserve their heat. Brook Lodge is renowned for its brown soda bread and it isn’t hard to see why as it was wonderful. Bread rolls were flavoured with cheese and a wild garlic pesto and were also delicious, especially when liberally spread with soft, salty butter.
 
Ireland's Youngest Cheese
An Irish Orchard Kir Royale made from single reserve cider using Dabinette apples and homemade blackcurrant liqueur opened proceedings and was a perfect way to kick off the meal. The slightly effervescent but mildly flavoured cider was a nice alternative to the more commonly used sparkling white wine or Champagne and resulted in a drink that was very Irish.
 
Next up was the intriguingly entitled Ireland’s Youngest Cheese. Here soft curds which had been made only 90 minutes beforehand were served with an oat-flake tuile and dressed with a drizzle of rapeseed oil and nasturtium leaves. I was completely smitten by the simplicity of this dish and loved the contrast of the crisp tuile against the soft cheese which possessed a subtle sweet flavour.
 
Duck's Yolk
Similarly, the Kale Nero Laverbread with Crispy Duck’s Yolk was simple in concept but used ingredients in innovative ways. Laverbread is a traditional Welsh delicacy which is made using seaweed. It is often served as a thick purée and is considered an acquired taste. Here black kale was substituted for the seaweed and it was made to a firmer consistency than would be the norm. This contrasted  wonderfully with the crispy duck’s yolk with its runny centre .The egg yolk had been gently pre-cooked and was then lightly covered in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. As you cut into the yolk, it oozed out creating a lovely rich sauce. A piquant hollandaise which served to cut through the richness of the overall dish finished everything off perfectly.
 
Wild Pigeon
I am a huge fan of wood pigeon so was delighted to see Seared Wild Wood Pigeon, Pearl Barley, Burnt Katy Apple Purée on the menu. This was a wonderful autumnal dish where the pigeon had been flawlessly cooked. The accompanying ‘ragout’ of pearl-barley and apple purée was deliciously rich and satisfying to eat. This was followed up by a creamy Smoked Potato Soup, Poitín, Bacon Foam. I particularly liked the inclusion of poitín which accentuated and highlighted the potato flavour but didn’t overpower the dish.
 
The meal then changed direction with the arrival of a Rhubarb Sorbet. However, this was more than a mere palate cleanser as the rhubarb was presented three ways – as a fiery compote flavoured with chilli; as a refreshing sorbet and finally, as a soothing drink. Our waitress advised that this was the order in which each should be consumed and we obediently followed her instructions. It was like taking my palate on an adventure where it was challenged and stimulated but where the flavours of rhubarb still managed to shine through. I loved it and felt ready to continue with the rest of my meal.
 
Beef
35 day-aged seared Beef Sirloin, Slow Cooked Shin, Celeriac Purée, Glazed Shallot, Full Bone Gravy was a mouth-watering dish which showcased the quality of the beef that had been used. The sirloin was melt-in-the-mouth tender but the true stars of the dish were the shin of beef croquette with its robustly flavoured soft meat and the outstanding bone gravy which was unlike any gravy that I have ever tasted before. A generous portion of extra gravy was served in a jug and I am a little embarrassed to admit that I finished off every drop!
 
An Orchard Fruit Soda was lovely after the rich and unctuous beef and came humorously presented in a small bottle with its own straw on a bed of real grass in a mini-apple crate. I loved the fun of this and enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland feel of the dish.
 
Orchard Fruit Soda
A stunning Blackcurrant Panna Cotta & Pickled Pears was the final dish of the Tasting Menu. The panna cotta was perfectly set and with its silky texture and intense blackcurrant flavour was heavenly to eat. Thankfully it had not been over-sweetened so the fruit flavours were not dulled in any way and worked wonderfully against the pickled pears and shortbread crumb that accompanied it. I couldn’t fault anything on the plate and can still vividly remember every spoonful.
 
After finishing my meal my waiter asked whether I would like to take a look at the walk-in Wild Foods Pantry which adjoins the dining room. I jumped at the chance and was highly impressed with the great selection of cheeses, charcuterie and preserved goods contained therein.
 
At €75 per person, the tasting menu isn’t cheap, but for the quality of the food and the journey you are taken on during your meal, I think that it is well worth every cent. A couple of glasses of house red washed everything down and added to my enjoyment of the meal.
 
The Strawberry Tree at the Brook Lodge & Wells Spa
Macreddin Village
County Wicklow
 
Telephone: 040236444
 
This review first appeared in TheTaste.ie