What a pleasure to find a restaurant focused on showcasing local foods of quality with care in one of Ireland’s most famous scenic destinations, where a lacklustre tourist experience could so easily have been the order of the day.
But that’s the way the Moriarty family do things. They’ve had a business here since 1964, when Margaret and the late Michael Moriarty first opened a souvenir shop at the Gap of Dunloe, selling quality items like Irish tweeds and rugs. It’s going strong to this day, with husband and wife team Denis Pio and Ailish Moriarty the current equally quality conscious - and innovative - owners, still helped on an everyday basis by Margaret Moriarty and her daughter Mary Anne.
And, half a century later, the bold decision was taken to develop the business by adding a restaurant - opening in May 2014 as the lovely bright and stylish Heather Restaurant, where visitors can be restored by the excellent local food served while savouring views over terraced gardens to the McGillicuddy Reeks.
The restaurant itself is an impressive blend of simplicity and carefully chosen features including an elevated glass fronted fire (which will be very welcome on chilly days) and - an extraordinary focal point - a sculpture made with supple willow saplings and rising right up to ceiling height. Made by a local man, it is quite a talking point and typical of the thinking behind this restaurant, which is a celebration of local talent and quality.
The artisan producers of Kerry and Cork are valued here. From the Toonsbridge buffalo mozzarella, Kenmare gouda and Ballinskellings chicken, to Glenbeigh cockles and mussels and Ring of Kerry lamb, almost everything on the brown paper menus is proudly sourced from local suppliers. In addition, salads and edible flowers are already coming from their own polytunnels just across the small river, the Loe.
Ingredients are top class and they are well handled by Head Chef Christian Conte and his kitchen team, as seen in pretty starters such as beetroot and goats cheese salad, with orange, fennel and fresh garden leaves, and a Quinlan’s smoked mackerel salad that comes with candied beetroot, rhubarb chutney and rye croutons.
Meat lovers will relish main courses like Ring of Kerry lamb chops with braised lentils, buttered baby carrots and sage jus, and expert fish cooking is demonstrated in beautifully presented dishes like wild Atlantic hake with red peppers, fennel and salsa verde - light and appetising, its obvious freshness is very appealing.
If you are just in for a snack, there are trays of scones, apple tarts and other delightful pastries to tempt you. Or, for a light bite, you might try a quiche - wild nettle and feta quiche, for example, served with parmesan, mixed garden leaves and a delicious homemade tomato chutney.
A short but quality-driven wine list also offers craft beers - with local Mountain Man Brewery of Macroom among the suppliers, also Stonewell craft cider from Kinsale. Non-alcoholic drinks are not overlooked either and, for example, apple juices from Ballyhoura Apple Farm are equally appealing to kids and adults.
Service at this lovely restaurant is terrific too, with Restaurant Manager Jennifer Dowling supervising a team of friendly, knowledgeable and efficient staff who are keen to make sure that everyone enjoys their visit. All this, and good value for money too - especially for a tourist hotspot, where many other operators would take easier options.
All round, Heather Restaurant is not just a credit to the beautiful Gap of Dunloe - it’s a destination in itself.