Some Irish restaurants are bucket list material and for this Irish foodie dreams came true on this road-tripping overnighter to Neven Maguire's award-winning restaurant in County Cavan.
We all love watching cookery programs – marveling at the expertise of the chefs and salivating at the delicious concoctions they rustle up with jaw-dropping ease. And while many of the dishes are more than a bit ambitious for the less-than-awesome culinary minds amongst us, there is always the option to try some simpler recipes at home, take a cookery class with the chef in question or better still, visit their establishment and be served delectable dishes from our food heroes.
One of the most recognizable faces in the cookery scene in Ireland is, of course, Neven Maguire, who graces our TV screens, bookstore shelves and most recently homewares section of Dunnes Stores shops nationwide.
But while his recipes are easier to follow than many others, his flagship restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan is ‘bucket list’ material with reservations quite often full for six months to a year in advance.
Fortunately, there are always cancellations so when I recently got the call to say a table had become available at MacNean House, my diary was immediately cleared, and I made plans to take the three-hour drive northwards.
Located about half an hour outside of Sligo town, it is possible to get to Blacklion from my Clare home in just over two hours but when the winter sky is cornflower blue, nothing beats the beauty of the Irish countryside so with sat-nav on, I, and my other half, cranked up the music and headed off for a gourmet night away.
Criss-crossing valleys, skirting around lakes and in and out of winding lanes, we arrived on the final stretch just as the sun was setting in the sky which offered a stunning view of the nearby Lough MacNean.
Blacklion is a small and quiet town just over the Northern Irish border and were it not for Neven’s restaurant, I can’t imagine many would make the trip, but located right on the main street, it is a destination point for food-loving travelers from both sides of the invisible divide.
With an ever-growing interest in fine dining, there is no shortage of fantastic places to eat in every corner of Ireland, but what makes this place special is the people – starting from the top and reaching the whole way down, every single member of staff goes over and above to make visitors feel at home.
Of course, so do countless other premises, but I could count on one hand the number of hotels or restaurants I’ve visited (and I’ve been to more than a few) where five-star service goes hand-in-hand with genuine warmth. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, but the overall feeling at MacNean is of staying with friends in fabulous surroundings who just happen to dish up incredible food.
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Escorted to our room on arrival, we found homemade cookies along with tea and coffee facilities to tide us over until dinner and this along with the soft music on the old fashioned radio in the corner helped us to unwind after our drive before it was time to freshen up and get our glad rags on and go downstairs for a glass of bubbly before dinner.
The atmosphere in the pre-dinner lounge was relaxed as all the guests gathered for an aperitif while perusing the menu and enjoying some delicious (and very artistic looking) amuse-bouche.
The six-course tasting menu (which includes pre-starter and pre-dessert dishes as well as palate-cleansing dishes in between) offers two or three choices (all locally sourced where possible) for each stage (there is also a vegetarian option) so as we wanted to taste everything on offer, we opted for one of each choice to share.
No-one should go to a restaurant like this because they are hungry or in a hurry as the whole point of the evening is for it to belong, relaxed and savoring – and over the course of our three-hour dinner, we sampled rabbit, quail, lamb, venison, hake, scallops and a plethora of mouth-watering desserts and petit fours.
We also opted for the wine pairing menu which meant that we were in the capable hands of the very knowledgeable Blaithin who brought us both a sample of different wines to go with each course, making the whole experience a lot more interesting and educational (mind you, despite the knowledge she imparted, I doubt I would be able to answer many questions on the various grapes and vintages we enjoyed over the course of the evening).
Relaxed and fully sated, we took our coffee to the lounge where having completed his evenings work, Neven came out to meet and greet his guests – everyone was full of praise and he was more than happy to pose for photos and sign copies of his latest cookbook – it was a fabulous evening but it was now time to retire – so bidding goodnight, we headed back upstairs (taking time to enjoy some of the works by local artists on display throughout the house) and enjoyed a dreamless sleep.
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Given the amount of food we had eaten the night before, we should really have been fasting the following morning but as MacNean House has recently won the ‘best breakfast in Ireland’ award, there was no chance of that.
Homemade breads, granola, fruit, yogurt, porridge (with a touch of Irish Mist) are all on offer as ‘starters’ and those who really want to push the boat out can follow with a choice of delectable cooked breakfast dishes ranging from the traditional ‘Full Irish’ to pancakes, omelets, eggs Benedict and more.
There was no doubt about it, the breakfast was fit for a king (and Queen). So afterward we were glad to be on the move and went next door to the cookery school where were we going to be shown how to create some fabulous dinner party recipes.
In the newly renovated space, the atmosphere was relaxed and informal, there was plenty of room for us budding chefs to chop, slice, boil and fry as Neven moved in and around amongst us offering advice, tips, and encouragement.
With the expert on hand, we all made a fairly good stab at Kataifi prawns with sauce Vierge, pan-fried duck breast with a honey and ginger sauce and a lemon and passion fruit posset to finish. We also tried our hand at some spun sugar and made some indulgent Wild Swan chocolate truffles.
And because several hours had passed, we were all naturally a little peckish after our efforts in the kitchen, so we took ourselves back to the restaurant where we enjoyed the fruits of our labors.
Unfortunately, the 24-hour experience had to draw to a close even though realistically we all knew this level of decadence couldn’t be sustained for more than a day or two. So having packed up the car, complete with some extra titbits made during the cookery class, we headed for home – refreshed, revived and revitalized.
We had only been at MacNean for a short time but the combination of indulging in great food and learning how to cook a stunning meal, made it feel as if we had been away for much longer. The trip ticked all the boxes and we will definitely be back, and I would urge anyone who has an interest in both eating and making fantastic food to get their diaries out and plan a trip to this little culinary corner of Heaven in Cavan.
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