Fine dining thrives once again in Clonmel, and in the very building where the late Michael Clifford set the culinary bar for the town, and the region, a decade ago.
Now owned by Jim and Anthony Smith of the cheerful Lautrecs Tapas & Wine Bar in Kilkenny city (see entry), the fine old 3-storey building was once a CIE coal house and it makes a bright and stylish setting for very fine food from talented young Head Chef Mark Ahessy and his team.
Mark actually started out in Michael Clifford’s kitchen at the age of seventeen, so reintroducing fine dining to his home town has bought him full circle - via Paris, London and New York, and some of this country's finest kitchens, including Dublin stars Chapter One, L'Ecrivain and Pichet.
This wide-ranging experience shows in outstanding cooking and Mark’s seasonal menus (which include a proper children’s menu) celebrate the great produce of the area - beef and pork from Cashel, lamb from Cahir, poultry from Fethard - in dishes which demonstrate creativity and finesse while always respecting the integrity of the ingredients and highlighting their natural flavours.
The restaurant itself is elegant and spacious, with crisp white linen and a pianist playing classical pieces in the bar area on some evenings. Owner Anthony Smith is a great host and his well-trained smartly black uniformed staff do a great job too, showing very good knowledge of dishes and giving personal recommendations - which is very helpful as the à la carte menus are quite extensive, offering perhaps seven dishes on each course and, in the current style, listing elements rather than describing the dish. But this is a place where you know you are in good hands and the menu opens on a personal note, by introducing the head chef and explaining the kitchen ethos on sourcing local foods, which gives a sense of place.
The choice offered is wide, ranging from a seasonal soup - jerusalem artichoke, perhaps, with a portobello mushroom pesto - to the most expensive starter, an exceptional and beautifully presented dish of pan seared scallops up from Wexford, partnered with with two small rectangles of pork belly, crisp crackling, fried quail egg, pancetta, apple gel and parsley emulsion.
Other tempting dishes may include a pretty ham hock terrine wth apricot, pistachio, spiced peach and sourdough toast, and an appealing vegetarian dish of homemade gnocchi with Bluebell Falls goats cheese, spinach and marinated tomatoes (other coeliac or vegetarian options are available on request too).
Standout dishes among the mains could be a tasting plate of rare breed pork (supplied by Michael Casey of Cashel); appealingly presented on a square plate garnished with pea shoots, this great tasting combination of confit fillet, suckling pig belly, black pudding cigar and crispy trotter comes with a grain mustard mousseline and apple purée and offers a lovely contrast in cooking techniques and flavours.
By contrast you might try a very colourful dish of cod with sliced artichoke heart, tomato fondue, samphire, asparagus and crisp mussels - a good sized portion of lovely fish and beautifully cooked and presented. Sides are an equal match too - very good pan roasted baby potatoes dusted with Parmesan, perhaps, along with sugar snap peas and tasty carrot batons.
Desserts tend towards the indulgent - a sumptuous salted caramel peanut chocolate pavé, perhaps, with peanut brittle and popcorn ice cream - but there’s also a tasting plate (or you could just finish with the excellent petits fours that come with coffees), and a real highlight is the cheese selection.
A careful choice of local cheese - such as the gorgeous Crozier Blue from Cashel and Cooleeney camembert - and other Irish and continental cheeses, it comes with impressive tasting notes and is served with homemade biscuits and spiced tomato cutney.
And interesting tasting notes are also a feature of the excellent wine list, which matches the food with a very good selection of French, Italian and New World and some Spanish wines, with four red and white house recommendations (also available by the glass), four half bottles, and three sparkling/ champagne, plus a good list of after dinner drinks and dessert wines.
This is a seriously good restaurant, where all the elements work well together to provide a memorable dining experience - and it offers good value too, notably on the early dinner menu and a more informal lunch à la carte (also offered on Sunday), which is sure to prove a longterm hit with local diners.