Country chinese well ernes its reputation . . .
Published 22/12/2006 | 11:46
One of Ulster's finest restaurants - and it's in the middle of nowhere
Erne Palace Chinese Restaurant
Address: Inishclare, Killadeas, Co Fermanagh
Tel: 6862 8550
Back when I was a nipper, there wasn't really much in the way of exotic cuisine in our house. Fish fingers, beans, cornflakes and spuds were the staple diet of my boyhood days.
Oh, and Smash too. Lots and lots of Smash.
So on the odd occasion when we were brought to a restaurant it was a time to experiment with new and fresh culinary experiences. You know the sort of thing - French fried onions, battered mushrooms, even chicken Kiev.
Unfortunately, in all this adventurous indulging in haute cuisine, you were bound to sometimes come a cropper.
And so in a restaurant in O'Connell Street in Dublin at the tender age of eight did it come to pass as I insisted on sampling my latest exotic offering.
I had heard of that mythical dish pizza through my regular diet of American TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch.
But in Lurgan in the Seventies such an avant-garde culinary item was impossible to lay your hands on.
There in the big smoke though I insisted on ordering the largest one possible.
One bite in and I declared I was full. "Oh no, it's not that I don't like it, it's just that I'm not that hungry after all," I insisted to my irate mother. "And it doesn't look like it does on Starsky and Hutch, anyway."
Thirty odd years on, sitting in Fermanagh's latest Chinese eaterie with my own two children I expected a similar sort of experience.
You know the kind of thing: "I'll have chop suey. Jackie Chan always has it in the cartoon series."
Before I could dissuade them from some unsuitable choice though, it became clear that they weren't as superficial and easily influenced by TV shows as I obviously had been at their age.
"I'll have chips," said the six-year-old.
"Me too," added his eight-year-old brother.
Such common sense. They're a tribute to their mother.
Anyway, they didn't know what they were missing, for the authentic fare at the Erne Palace was really very good.
I must admit that I'd headed there with few expectations.
Located just off the main Enniskillen to Kesh Road, the beautifully situated building nestling on the shores of Lough Erne had previously been home to the Inishclare.
But if that restaurant, which I had been impressed with on a visit a few years back, couldn't thrive then I wondered what could.
And so on a dark wet Sunday night a few weeks before Christmas we headed down towards the waterfront setting, with me betting the children 50p each that there wouldn't be more than three cars in the car park.
In the event, it was closer to the 30-mark, and a glimpse in through the huge glass window showed the place was packed ... and it wasn't even half six yet.
After a momentary scare that there may not be room at the inn, we were shown into the restaurant, which hummed with conversation and conviviality.
From the start it was clear that if ever a place lives up to its name, it's here.
For everything about the Erne Palace is palatial.
The dining room is a huge space, with a high vaulted ceiling and giant oak beams; and the tables are clad with the best linen and laid out with gleaming cutlery and glassware.
Meanwhile, the service was highly attentive - coats were removed from your back, glasses of water were constantly re-filled - but yet also friendly and unstuffy.
It's even a great place for parents with kids. Our two usually, let's say, very lively boys were distracted for at least an hour in copying on some pages the Chinese writing that adorned one of the oriental wall hangings.
And then there's the food. Traditional Chinese dishes are served up using the freshest ingredients and highest quality produce, all cooked with a real delicacy of touch from the kitchen.
For starters my wife and I shared the crispy aromatic duck. Thin, tender slices of meat were served on a plate with slivers of cucumber and spring onion, accompanied by a rich sweet sauce and two separate bamboo baskets with half a dozen pancakes in each. It was a deeply comforting opener.
For my main course, the Szechuan Chicken incorporated some beautifully cooked pieces of meat in a slightly spicy, mouthwatering sauce. An amazingly fluffy portion of the house speciality rice was served separately.
Again my wife's Chicken Chow Mein was a lovely, light offering, a million miles away from most of the takeaway versions of the dish.
So enamoured were we with our previous fare, that we even decided to try some dessert - despite the fact that it's usually pushing your luck when you're out with two children.
In 37 years neither myself nor my wife had sampled the delights of deep fried ice cream. With a kind of slightly crunchy coconut covering, here it was a strangely marvellous experience.
In fact that description could possibly be described to the whole evening.
Miles from town on the edge of Lough Erne isn't maybe the first place you'd think of finding a quality Chinese restaurant.
But the Erne Palace is certainly that ... and with standards of service, cooking and value that would put many Northern Ireland eateries to shame.
As the crowds which we encountered show, the word is out ... and rightly so.