James and Beryl Kearney’s lovely 1750s Georgian house just on the edge of Longford town was once owned by Lord Longford, and is set in four acres of beautiful wooded gardens, designed as a series of rooms.
It really is a delightful house and has been sensitively restored with style, making a great setting for VM Restaurant which the Kearneys and Head Chef Gary O’Hanlon opened late in 2008. Since then they have taken the midlands by storm, making Longford a destination for food lovers throughout Ireland, and beyond.
In converted stables, with exposed stonework and an abundance of candles making it atmospheric at night, the restaurant overlooks James’s fascinating Japanese garden (complete with water features) and it is full of character. When beautifully set up with white linen, elegant white china and different flowers from the gardens on each table, it makes a lovely setting in which to enjoy Gary’s excellent modern classic cooking.
Whether entering from the car park or the main house, guests arrive in a ‘new’ bar and restaurant reception area with a welcoming fire, where Beryl explains the menu while you enjoy a pre-dinner drink.
Gary is from Donegal (source of most of his fresh fish) and a Euro-Toques chef who lives the philosophy and takes pride in showcasing the best of local produce.
The four-course dinner menu begins with an interesting cover note giving the history of the house, and then the menu itself reads like a who’s who of nearby artisan and specialist food producers, with names like Donald Russell beef (Longford), Kettyle free range chicken (Fermanagh), Thornhill duck (Cavan), Clare Island organic salmon (Mayo) – and, of course, VM’s own garden leaves and herbs - leaping off the page.
As befits the surroundings, the tone of the menu is special occasion but - although cooked with creativity and finesse - the secret of VM’s success is that the food experience is built on respect for its clientèle, both locally and those who travel considerable distances for the pleasure of a meal here. Thus the cooking is grounded in the familiar products of the region, it is not overly cheffy, the atmosphere is welcoming and unstuffy – and prices are very reasonable for the quality offered.
The half dozen or so dishes on each course have a slight leaning towards poultry (duck, guinea fowl, free range chicken) but there’s plenty of beef, perhaps rare breed pork or Roscommon lamb, fish and shellfish on offer too, and one or two imaginative vegetarian main courses.
All the little niceties are observed, beginning with a complimentary amuse bouche (hoi sin duck in choux pastry, perhaps) before starters, which will include a flavoursome soup – VM vegetable soup, for example, served with basil oil and (very good) breads - and perhaps an interesting Taste of the Midlands salad, with O’Halleran’s free range egg, spinach, Kelly’s organic soft cheese, Rogans whiskey oak smoked bacon (from John Rogan, near Mullingar), capers, Viewmount herbs, red onion, red wine vinaigrette and roast pear.
Main courses include the mandatory steak of course (28 day aged sirloin, for example, which may also be offered as a traditional roast for Sunday lunch) and there may be a special fish, such as line caught brill or cod from Donegal. Dishes sound intricate when reading the menu descriptions but skilful execution and care with balancing flavours ensures that the food on the plate does not seem too complex.
Rather glamorous desserts are hard to resist, and might include a sweetened ricotta cheese & vanilla bean éclair with Callebaut chocolate, or a tasting plate of highly original VM ice creams and sorbets with brandy snap - and, to round off a special meal, coffee comes with lovely homemade petits fours.
A meal here is sure to be a delightful experience, enhanced by attentive service and, especially, Beryl Kearney’s caring interaction with guests.
An informative wine list, helpfully organised by style, includes some half bottles and a fair choice under €30.
VM is a lovely restaurant, and certainly worth a journey.