Heading off last week to a hotel for the first time since mid-March felt less like the great escape than a solemn rite of passage, the tentative first steps taken when the plaster has been removed from a broken leg but the crutches are still needed.
There were questions: would Bellinter House in the heart of Co Meath apply the levels of care and attention given to social distancing which the adviser and I had tried to stick to for nearly four months? More worryingly for the adviser was the menu which looked like a pared down list of pub grub dishes including chicken wings and burgers. Oh God, if that was the restaurant menu, what were the rooms like?
We got in the car with a set of pre-conceived ideas neither of us wanted to air. Nobody wants to rain on your first day away from the house but expectations were not high. Off we went, vaguely of the view that Bellinter might not be the luxe paradise friends had told us about, and more of a chips and pints joint with views and nice period staircases.
All good country house hotels in Ireland impress you by providing a big set of gates and a long and winding lane through graceful parkland with mature oaks and beeches. The sense of anticipation rises and in the case of Bellinter, when you finally reach the magnificently austere Georgian frontage flanked by two wings, you get the sense that you have arrived somewhere significant. The grand old house is marked by a beautiful bright red door pouting at you at the top of a flight of steps.
Once inside, the charm begins and our preconceptions start to evaporate. Receptionists smile and chat and the informal charm immediately makes itself felt. Room 101 is assigned to us and we make our way up that sweeping staircase and enter a room which takes our breath away. And then we see the bathroom which floors us. Winner of the Kittensoft Best Bathroom of the Year 2013 (the certificate is framed and on the wall), it's as big as the bedroom. A little applied vandalism transforms tedious 18th century portraits and landscapes into something more poppy and punky and small touches here and there including bird cages and giant bottle lamps provide added humour to the beautiful, hipster blue grey hues on the walls and floors.
Dinner has been booked and we are now happily resigned to the buffalo wings and burgers. After a couple of pints and the house cocktail, a pear Collins, in the drawing room overlooking the wooded Boyne valley, we brace ourselves and enter the basement restaurant. Beneath low, vaulted ceilings we find a happy number of couples at tables, safely distant from each other yet not so far as to cancel any atmosphere.
I find a salad of heritage tomatoes with mozzarella and a hake dish while the adviser sticks to her plan of wings and then ribeye. A decent bottle of Sancerre and a glass or two of Malbec follow a very generous glass of Deutz champagne. Service is quick, charming and friendly while the creative sounds banging out of the kitchen tell us that somebody is taking things seriously in there. Turns out to be head chef Francoise Herpin. The salad is as described. There are slices of multi-coloured and sized tomatoes on the dish with bright green spinach pesto and a ball of mozzarella all beneath a drizzle of excellently balanced balsamic dressing. There is sweetness and tanginess, lush depth in the pesto and great satisfaction in the pillowy mozzarella.
The apparently modest chicken wings are an outstanding blend of crispiness, moist confit and flavour heightened all the more by coconut shot sauce and blue cheese dressing. Sounds standard, but this is a level higher than even the best we have had in Madame Pho.
But it's the pan fried hake fillet on a bed of lemon and squid ink risotto with pok choi and fennel salsa which will linger in my memory for years to come. This Mediterranean meets the Far East set of flavours is brilliant, the hake flaking apart, the dark rice full of depth and deep sea mystery and the pok choi bright green, crunchy and wholesome.
Pastry chef Stephane Moreau also happens to make the best classic crème brulee and if you add this to the four Irish cheeses which are at perfect temperature, you get the idea that Bellinter is either underselling itself or just has a supercool approach to looking after its guests. We're going back asap.
Chicken wings £8.50
Tomato salad £9.50
Cheese board £9.50
Crème brulee £7.50
Bottle Sancerre £45
Malbec glass x £2 .18