Restaurant review: Shore winner
Catalina Restaurant, Lough Erne Resort, Belleek Road, Enniskillen. Tel: 028 6632 3230
I've said it a thousand times: always approach hotel restaurants with caution. After too many disappointments trying to relive childhood treats when families flocked to hotels for a Sunday carvery, the conclusion is that they are mostly best avoided. There are exceptions, but even these do not match our mid-range bistro sector, never mind the finer diners.
But in the eight years of writing this column, nothing has been quite so face-slappingly, jaw-droppingly, stop-you-in-your-tracks surprising as the Catalina restaurant in Lough Erne Resort.
The Fermanagh golf hotel and holiday homes complex is tucked away on the southern shores of Lower Lough Erne by Castlehume, minutes from Enniskillen. Troubled and lauded, the focal point of world affairs during the G8 summit two years ago (following a fire incident) and now in the hands of American investors, Lough Erne Resort has been through the wars. It could do with a refurb if it is to match the luxury of Galgorm Resort. But its restaurant is clearly the top hotel operation in the north and easily on a par with the absolute best in Belfast and Dublin.
The dining room's creamy warmth, soft lighting and acres of white linen is not unlike The Bazaar, the famous Miami Beach restaurant in Hotel SLS operated by legendary chef Jose Andres. The mood is similar, if a little more relaxed. There is less attention deficit disorder in Catalina; in fact, the service is flawless.
It's Saturday night and the sense of occasion is managed by staff who are more human behaviouralist experts than catering graduates. Restaurant manager Lee Brunt quickly detects that what the advisor and I really need is a pre-dinner visit to the comfortable bar next door to the restaurant. Here, the firepower of local Boatyard gin (47% proof!) will soothe the nerves of any tired and crotchety visitor (me).
The long-suffering advisor's shoulders are visibly relaxing as that Fermanagh charm envelopes her and hands her a glass of prosecco.
It's busy, full of couples of all ages and the occasional foursome. They don't look like golfers. The golfers I know wouldn't want much other than a burger anyway, so they couldn't possibly be interested in coming here. Because here, in Noel McMeel's domain, the food is other worldly. The dishes are recognisable and there is some tradition and convention, but really, it's a restaurant of discovery.
A cube of pork terrine with a mushroom veloute arrives with a glass of Riesling. "Noel said you might enjoy an amuse bouche of Pat O'Doherty's pork," explains Megan Daly who is the kind of woman you suspect is restaurant supervisor at the weekend for the craic, and who probably heads up a corporation during the week.
The cube is tiny but explosive. The porky intensity is deep and makes us both very happy.
The mushroom flavours complete the ruddy earthiness of it. If this is a signal of things to come, the advisor suggests, or the highlight of the meal, we will have eaten well.
But then other things start to happen. A Kilkeel crab salad which has been much talked about by friends who had been here eight years earlier, not only lives up to the ridiculous expectations but surpasses them. A generous disc of crab meat, the fronds neatly packed and punctuated with chervil and crowned with some pickled fennel, also has minute seams of tangerine running through it.
An accompanying quenelle of quince water ice adds glamour and gentle, appley flavours which work well with the salty crab. You have the option of having the recommended glass of wine which in this case is a fresh Austrian Sepp. We both work with their recommendations for both courses and can't fault them.
The advisor is equally taken by the Glenarm salmon which is cured in that Boatyard gin and served with malt bread crumble, salted lemon and ice parsnip cream. Both are so good we end up doing trade deals and swapping bits of salmon for crab.
The quality doesn't end there and more entre-plats arrive, this time a leek fritter with a leek and Comber potato soup. Adding excitement are tiny, match-head sized cubes of potato with crunch and that deep starchy flavour. As a child I remember biting into a raw potato. It was inedible of course but if you nibble a tiny piece of it in this context, it turns into something entertaining and surprising.
Noel McMeel's Signature Dish is a celebration of the pig. O'Doherty's have again provided the fillet, belly, cheek, ham hock and black pudding for McMeel to work his magic. It is sensational. The black pudding comes embedded in a millefeuille pastry which I can still taste
Kettlye beef fillet with bone marrow beignet, grilled salsify, burnt pickled shallot, celeriac puree and white pepper corn jus, sounds like a mash up but it is all beautifully judged. I wasn't mad on the beignet because the marrow is too delicate but the advisor told me to wise up.
The final act was a black currant soufflé (McMeel's garden must be a paradise) which puffed itself up beautifully. I'd love to tell you more about the kedgeree at breakfast and the walks by the frozen shores of the lake. Next time.
One 3-course dinner: £52
One 2-course dinner: £45