Paolo Tullio's Review
Because Ireland is an island, there's only one way to get your car to the continent, and that's by ferry. I've done every one of them, direct to France and through the UK. I've done hovercrafts and the channel tunnel as well, but for the past five years I've gone from Ireland to France direct for the sheer ease of it. This year I decided to try two ferry companies, one outbound and one inbound, to check out what visitors to this island get to eat when they arrive and when they leave.
I went to France by Brittany Ferries, taking their new ship the Pont Aven from Ringaskiddy outside Cork to Roscoff in Brittany. The Flora restaurant is their main restaurant, which is at the ship's stern and has views of 180 degrees. It's very smartly decorated, there are plenty of dividers to keep some privacy between the tables and in the middle of the dining room is the buffet, where you can choose your starter plate. If the buffet's not for you, you can dine à la carte. I ate from the set menu, which is priced at £24, or about 36.
When you sit down to dine alone you do need the company of a good wine. The wine list in the Flora is pretty comprehensive and the prices are closer to French wine prices than Irish ones. It was good too to find sixteen wines available in half bottles, which gave me a decent choice. In the end I decided on the Chateau de Beaune 2000 Premier Cru, which at £13.50, or about 20, was superb value. When I tasted it, it turned out to be an exceptional wine and it helped put me into just the right mood for enjoying a meal. A bottle of San Pellegrino added another 3.
If I'd gone up to the buffet I could have picked out a big plate of langoustines and smoked salmon amongst other things, but instead I opted to stay sat and get served. I started with a pate of smoked scallops, which was served in a small Kilner jar and came with toast. It was a very good starter and I congratulated myself for having chosen it. There was good bread on the table and the waiting staff were fast and courteous.
For the main courses I'd ordered what the French do well, a steak and frites, which came with a Béarnaise sauce. It was just as it should have been, the meat pink and succulent, the frites thin and crisply fried. This simple dish and my Chateau de Beaune made an almost perfect marriage and reminded me that one of the strengths of French cuisine is that even simple things are done well.
I finished up this very good meal with a fine selection of cheese and then a coffee and a little cognac, a pleasure normally denied to me when I'm driving home from a restaurant. About this time I met up with old friends who were dining at a nearby table and the evening finished with a couple more cognacs bringing my bill to 72.77.
After a few weeks of continental dining it was time for the return, this time from Roscoff to Rosslare by Irish ferries. I'd noticed last year that the food in their main restaurant, the Renoir, was not as good as it had been before, but this year the transition from an okay restaurant to bad canteen food was complete. What came to me at dinner was probably the worst meal I've ever been presented with.
The Renoir has a set dinner priced at 29.75, which for three courses doesn't seem too bad on the face of it. Starters included a soup (which was off), smoked salmon, a terrine of wild boar and Thai fish cakes. I decided that since the smoked salmon and the terrine would have had little to do with the chefs, I'd try the Thai fish cakes. At least I remember the menu saying cakes', but only one turned up on the plate. As I looked at it I could see oil seeping from the crust. If you fry something in oil that isn't hot, that's what happens - the crust absorbs oil instead of crisping up. Clearly this was a fish cake that had been improperly reheated in oil that wasn't hot enough. I cut it in half despondently and found a lukewarm interior. Its taste wasn't unpleasant, but the oily texture, its reheating and the cool centre did it no favours - nor did the limp, undressed lettuce that accompanied it.
I awaited my slices of the day's roast - beef - thinking to myself that they couldn't really cock that up. How wrong I was. As the waiter put the plate before me I saw three dry slices of beef. Separating the overlapping slices I could see from the unexposed meat that it had been sitting under a salamander for a while - maybe half an hour - before coming to me. I couldn't face it and asked the waiter to take it away. He offered me more beef, which I declined, and said that some cheese would do me. He persuaded me to try the lamb shank, which was acceptable enough, but the sad little flat of vegetables that came with it took me back to Ireland in the 60s, when food like this was the norm. Couple this with a paper table cloth, cheap glassware, plain pressed steel cutlery and you can see why I used the word canteen'. A half bottle of Crozes Hermitage and mineral water brought the bill for this dinner to 42.80.
If these ferries never left their Irish ports, then the Flora would be among the best restaurants in Co. Cork, while the Renoir would be amongst the very worst of Co. Wexford.