- Food & Drink
If Ballymaloe is our Babylon, then Ballycotton is our Soddom and Gommorah. Timourous, befloured students cast off their discipline and hunger for knowledge on the 2-mile journey to the harbour village and arrive there with a thirst for beer and dancing and whatever else they can get.
Our regular fleshpot is The Blackbird, the pub every term’s students flock to, and on Saturday 8 students plus Bellerina (who came to visit) gathered there for a pre-dinner Murphy’s. Denser than a black hole, Murphy’s is a terrible aperitif but wisdom and pubs rarely meet, so we ploughed through our pints and then sped down Ballycotton to Nautilus.
I sat in my harbourside seat, watching the fishing boats bob up and down and picking through the Frenchish menu while everyone else poured over the wine menu and tried to find the bottle that’d meet everyone’s taste and pocket. Bottles of organic tempranillo on the table (you wouldn’t expect Ballymaloe students to order anything other than organic wine, would you?), we nibbled on yet more great soda bread while we ordered our food.
I kicked off with a plate of smooth pork rillettes, heart attack duck and cognac liver pâté and coarse pork terrine with not quite enough toasted sourdough. There’s never enough toast and given how rich the liver pâté was, the pickles could have been sharper. Apart from the little onions, the pickled vegetables were mild and sweet. I could’ve happily eaten a bowl of them but I needed something a little more acidic to balance out the plate.
Bellerina triumphed on the starter front with a confit duck mille feuille with mushrooms and tarragon. A classic combination of flavours and, in spite of the richness of the ingredients, they sat easily together. Utterly delicious.
For mains, I went off-menu and ordered a special of mussels and chips. I like a meal you can get your hands stuck into and when I’ve got a finger bowl, I forget all about forks. The mussels were plump and juicy with a tangy of oceanic musk about them. A pool of creamy sauce covered the bottom of the bowl and I swirled my crisp, skin-on chips in it trying to soak up the sauce.
Bellerina went for another daily special – roast cod with mashed potato. A plate of white, flaking fish and creamy spuds, it was a great fish dish for a cold day. In fact, across the table, everyone enjoyed their meals apart from the student who’d ordered potato and hazelnut gnocchi with butternut squash and rocket. She got a bowl of salad dotted with pan-fried balls of potato, which I suppose is what you get for ordering the Italian vegetarian dish in a French fishing port restaurant.
Service was brisk and friendly with just the one misfire – a missing starter that they didn’t notice until long after we’d given up being polite and dived into our own food. Eventually a waiter was captured, the starter pleaded for and delivered a few minutes later (it was another plate of pâtés). After that, the waiter subtly counted our meals in and out to make sure no one was left behind.
The bill for 8 starters, 9 mains, 6 bottles of wine and service came to €40 a head and if I was looking for a restaurant to take someone for a quiet tête-á-tête, then the casual hush of Nautilus would suit my purposes.
But there was something about nautilus that left me feeling a bit flat. Firstly, there was the price. I’m a Londoner. I went to Moscow and thought it was all that expensive. But at around €7 for a starter and €18 for a main, it verged on being a tiny bit expensive. Although I’m not used to Irish pricing yet. Maybe in a few weeks this’ll seem like a staggering bargain.
And then there was the Frenchish menu. I can eat Frenchish food almost anywhere in the Western World (and beyond). Last week I was asked how I was enjoying Irish food. I had to say that although I’d been here 2 weeks, the only definitely Irish dishes I’d stuck in my mouth were soda bread and skin-on potatoes.
I like soda bread and I like potatoes, and the quality of the raw ingredients here makes my heart sing and my stomach brace itself, but if everything is being prepared along French lines then how do I know I’m in Ireland? If Nautilus offered something that anchored it more in its area and culture, I’d be back like a shot but otherwise, it’s one in a long line of good French restaurants that are perfect for business and romance wherever you happen to be.