Paolo Tullio's Review
You may have heard the phrase journalistic ethics'. I've been hearing it all my life and have always had a rather fuzzy idea of what it meant. I've been on the sharp end of tabloid doorstepping and I've seen stories in print that I personally know for sure are untrue, so the exact meaning of that phrase has always eluded me. As a journalist myself I do have moments of soul-searching, which I suppose could be the fore-runner to a fit of ethical behaviour.
You see I've been struggling with a problem for the past couple of years and it's this: how do I set about reviewing a restaurant that belongs to a friend of mine? You see the problem; if I don't like it and write up that opinion, then I lose a friend and if I don't write it up all then I'm dishonest. If I like it and I say so, then I'm open to the accusation so admirably expressed by Mandy Rice-Davis, well he would say that, wouldn't he?'
Well, this was the week I made a decision. After two years of will I, won't I - I did. I went to Neven McGuire's McNean's Bistro in Blacklion. There can't be many people in Ireland who don't know who Neven McGuire is, he's our own home-grown celebrity chef and he's on telly more than me. He's exactly like his telly persona: he's personable, smiling and friendly as well, I always thought, as being a good chef. Quite how good he is I only just found out.
Getting to Blacklion is a bit like getting to southern Kerry; that's to say when you think you're nearly there, you're not. You reach Cavan town easily enough, but then you discover just how big a county Cavan is on the diagonal, because Blacklion is very near Enniskillen and about half a mile from the border. But the truth is simple, a trip to McNean's Bistro is worth the trip and here's the good bit; Neven also has bedrooms, so you can eat and then slump off to bed, to rise refreshed in time for a fine breakfast.
McNean's Bistro was where Neven grew up, it's his family's business. I'd guess that that's how he manages to give such extraordinary value for money - he's not having to repay start-up costs. But more about the value later. The restaurant is part of a small hotel; when you walk in there's a dining room on each side of you, a smaller room to the right and a larger one to the left, but between the two you won't be among more than forty diners.
I'd arrived there with Marian Kenny and we got a table in the larger of the two rooms, which seats maybe twenty-five. Marian has for some time been losing interest in red meat, so she scoured the vegetarian menu, which is four courses plus coffee and is priced at 35. I chose from the dinner menu, also four courses plus coffee, and it was priced at 55. If you have a real appetite, you could always choose from the tasting menus. The vegetarian tasting menu is priced at 50 and for that you'll get eight courses and coffee. The tasting menu is priced at 70 and offers nine courses, which is surely only for only for true trenchermen.
I spent some time on the wine list, which is where Neven is now directing some of his boundless energy. It's a well put together list with about a hundred wines and it begins with six red and six white house wines which are priced at 20. The main list is well priced and includes some very good wines, the vast majority pitched between 20 and 40, which is great to see. There's a good selection of half bottles as well, a service that more restaurants should offer in these days of the breathalyser. The last part of the list is Neven's Premium Selection where the wines from 40 to 80 can be found: good Burgundies and Bordeaux, as well as super Tuscans, Rhones, Alsace and a smattering of New World greats. I chose the excellent Pouilly Fuissé Beauregard 2002 at 38.75.
Like many high-end restaurants, what's listed on the menu isn't all you get - apart from the listed courses you get amuses bouches and inter-course tit-bits, so the impression you're left with is of unending dishes arriving before you, each tastier than the last. I won't describe all the dishes that came to Marian and me because that would take up more room than I have, but some of them were too good not to describe. We both began with an inventive parsnip and honey soup, which Marian followed with a saffron risotto while I had a seafood platter. Next she had the baked goats' cheese with roast peppers and balsamic syrup, which she declared to be the best goats' cheese she'd ever tasted. Meanwhile I had a long thin platter placed before me on which I found a slice of pate de foie, a slice of delicious brioche and a perfectly seared foie gras.
It didn't stop there. An apricot sabayon came to both of us as a plate cleanser, then a raviolo of organic chicken to Marian, a saddle of rabbit stuffed with smoked bacon to me, a fillet of wild sea bass for Marian and then confit duck leg to me. When the next course came, a strawberry and orange crème brulée and we were told it was a pre-dessert' we gave up. Please, no more,' we begged and the meal ended there.
It's hard to praise this meal enough. The quality of what we had was on a par with the very best I've eaten in France, Spain and Italy. Careful, thoughtful, skilful, inventive and presented with élan, this was really haute cuisine at a price that anyone could afford. Remarkable.