I have always had a soft spot for Lisloughery Lodge, enjoyed many good meals there and slept soundly in their lavish bedrooms. Previously, a stunning job was done on Lisloughrey, transforming it from old style country house into contemporary country hideaway with bedrooms and suites individually styled and decorated, oversized beds, deep piled carpets, dark wood furniture and the latest flat screen technology. The heart of the hotel is a magnificent period building and behind it, new accommodation was added discreetly in two-bedroom units built around an attractive landscaped courtyard with covered walkways. Set in the grounds of Ashford Castle and now in common ownership, their hotel has one of the most beautiful locations in the country. Perched above Lough Corrib, just outside the pretty village of Cong, the most picturesque of villages with little giftshops to peruse, cafes and pubs to refresh yourself in, ferry rides and woodland walks to amuse you. Fishing, golf and even falconry are all on your doorstep.
Since joining the Red Carnation Hotel Collection in July 2013 Ashford Castle has been extensively restored and enhanced by new owners Beatrice and Stanley Tollman. Mrs Tollman and her team have carefully sourced antiques, artworks, fabrics and bespoke carpets appropriate to the ambience and tradition of this famous property. There are additional plans for a library, indoor cinema, billiard room, cigar terrace and spa to reinforce Ashford’s position as a luxury destination hotel. With Ashford well on the way to recovery, just in time for its 75th birthday as a hotel, her gaze now turns to the renamed Lodge at Ashford Castle which had suffered in recent years in the embrace of the receivers.
We went to check on the progress of our favorite refuge and visited for ‘Secret Sunday’, a relaxed and rather indulgent overnight stay including an eight-course tasting dinner menu in Wilde’s on Sunday night, breakfast on Monday morning, a light lunch in the Quay Bar and the extra bonus of a late check-out. The hotel is in a state of transition, at the time of its initial development a contemporary approach was taken throughout the interior. However, now in an effort to more closely integrate with its sister property, Mrs Tollman seems to be setting about restoring the elegance of the old period house.
Despite the beautiful room, cocktails in the cosy bar and excellent service, the shining star of our stay was the surprise dinner menu, a must for those with any degree of culinary curiosity. Named after local legend Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar) I adored this beautiful restaurant over three elegant rooms on the first floor, with views of Lough Corrib and Lisloughrey Quay, its small boats in the harbour and the old stone buildings nestled against the thickly wooded hills. As the evening draws in, warm lighting creates the atmosphere for what promises to be an interesting meal.
Head Chef Jonathan Keane grew up in Connemara and his respect for the great West of Ireland ingredients is clearly evident in his cooking. While many of Mrs Tollman’s own dishes such as Prawn Stroganoff, and Sesame Fried Chicken from her book ‘A Life in Food’ appear on the lunch menu in the Quay Bar menu, the menu at Wilde’s remains accomplished, inventive, at times playful, but always pure Johnathan. This Chef is an exceptional talent and it is a testament to Mrs Tollman, and her many years experience in the hotel and restaurant industry, that she has recognized this and encourages him, leaving him largely to his own devices, while keeping a constant dialogue, speaking together most mornings to discuss plans and menus.
Menus are inspired by the availability of produce and change with the seasons and showcase the wild foods that Jonathan and his team go out to forage for themselves. As a member of the newly formed Slow Food Mayo convivium, through each dish and his local suppliers, Jonathan introduces diners to ingredients he is passionate about and the people who produce or supply them. Killeen Farmhouse Cheese of Ballinasloe, Mulranny honey, fruit and leaves from organic supplier Reek View Farm and paté from Kate McCormack in Westport. Killary Fjord Shellfish provide mussels and other fish and seafood comes mainly from Gannet Fishmongers in Galway. A favourite ingredient is Mayo Atlantic Sea Spray lamb, a local variation on the pré-salé (salt meadow) lamb popular in France. This is supplied by legendary butcher, Kellys of Newport, along with other meats including his famous black pudding and speciality sausages, some flavored with local seaweed.
We ate through a dizzying list of courses. An amuse-bouche of their signature black pudding and chocolate truffle bon-bon with fig vinegar and mint leaf sets the scene for what’s to come. Perfectly seared queen scallops served with a buttery roe puree, dotted with sweet gin soaked raisins, contrasted with pickled seaweed. A gluttonous trifle is next, whipped foie gras with a thin layer of rhubarb jelly, tiny crisp brioche croutons, and a spoon of passion fruit and gorse flower sorbet. A scoop of sweet, smooth orange sorbet arrives, just the thing to cleanse a startled palate.
A gleaming copper pot contains crisp skinned rainbow trout, swimming in a sea of pea and liquorice with asparagus and aromatic fennel fronds. A unique lamb dish of mustard and sea spinach loin, dillisk sausage, and shoulder slow cooked in Coca-Cola sits on a punch of roast garlic puree and salsa verde. A tiny pre-dessert of Neapolitan ice-cream wafer sandwich, flavored with beetroot, parsnip and coriander. An excellent chocolate fondant comes with fennel ice-cream and salted caramel has a hidden surprise, I won’t spoil it for you. Portions are expertly judged, we had room for a couple of more-ish cocktails in the hotel’s bar after dinner… God bless the late check out time!
Backed up by an interesting wine list and solicitous, knowledgeable service from the charming Nicky Moran, Sunday evenings at Wilde’s is a special dining experience. There is a new buzz at The Lodge, a fun atmosphere and some remarkable food, Secret Sunday is the perfect ending and beginning to any week.
Secret Sundays at The Lodge at Ashford Castle cost from €239 per room (including tasting menu, breakfast and lunch in the Quay Bar). The Lodge at Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo T: 094 954 5400.
First published in The Galway Advertiser 14.08.2014