Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Cafe Merlot
Cafe Merlot: 6 Church Street, Enniskillen, FermanaghBT74 7EJ. Tel: 028 6632 0918.
Fermanagh is famous for having its own time zone and an approach to life which makes it ideal for the holidays. Here, an hour lasts an extra 30 minutes and the idea of rushing anywhere is strictly regulated by the number of people you have to stop to say hello to before you reach your destination.
Fermanagh's reputation for being laid-back and friendly is well established. All that hospitality, calm water and gentle rolling landscape means people go back again and again.
And the food offer is getting better all the time. The Lough Erne Resort, Watermill, Dolliakis, Franco's and one or two others have been consistent over the years, as has been Cafe Merlot in Enniskillen.
Cafe Merlot keeps popping up among the finalists in various restaurant competitions. The fact that it's housed in a crypt beneath the staggeringly beautiful Blakes of the Hollow pub in the heart of the town makes it all the more attractive.
Blakes is the kind of bar on which a Hollywood producer would base his design when asked to construct the perfect Irish pub. It has everything: high ceilings, wooden panelling, years of patina and loads of intimate little corners. Head downstairs and the mood changes from Victorian Ireland to medieval Europe. The dining room sits beneath the vaulted barrel ceilings held up by thick square pillars. All is bathed in a soft vanilla shaded light. It seems to be doing a great trade this weekday lunchtime.
A server quickly spots the two of us arriving. We haven't booked but that's not a problem if we don't mind waiting a minute. (I whisper to my mate to brace himself: this is Fermanagh time). Within 30 seconds he's found us a table.
Service is quick and menus are delivered swiftly. There is even a fast rhythm to the to-ing and fro-ing by servers. It's lunchtime and people have offices to get back to. Something must have happened since the last time I was in the county.
A large group of women delegates attending a conference descend on the place and there's no hint of being harried or stressed. Within seconds they are settled.
Paradoxically, the two of us are not in a hurry. We have prepared ourselves for a different pace altogether. We order the vegetarian spinach and saffron risotto and smoked Toulouse sausages with champ, sauteed onions and chasseur sauce, and watch the action while we wait.
If only some restaurants in Belfast would up their pace to match this, they might find more people willing to come out for lunch.
Ours arrive and we tuck in to perfectly sound, simple dishes which are robust and plentiful. Sausages and mash require little but quality to start with and a good gravy to wet it. Both are achieved. The chasseur sauce is a posh gravy with red wine and is full of deep flavours. The risotto is golden yellow and the spinach and scallions provide attractive shades of green. A field mushroom adds another dimension to it. It's excellent.
We have a small glass of wine each and then, seeing as the timing's on our side, a dessert of three mini versions of sweet things, including a creme brulee which is a wonder.
Service is not just quick, but slick. Servers know what they're doing and they're hospitable. It's all reassuringly professional. Sometimes, particularly in the rural north, warmth and hospitality is sometimes accompanied by a charming sense of incompetence. Not here. They've got it all.
Based on reputation alone, Cafe Merlot is worth a trip. Based on this one-off experience, I'll head back to see what they do in the less pressed-for-time evening.
Assiette of 3 desserts x 2 £11.90
Glass of wine x 2 £7.00