- Food & Drink
There’s a school of thought that you should visit a restaurant at least 3 times before you review it. Some bloggers take this very seriously and pledge to uphold it, their right hand held over their heart and their left hand saluting the triumvirate of statins, insulin and Gaviscon that come to dominate most food writer’s lives. Others take the view that restaurants don’t capriciously set out to ruin people’s evenings with bad food 1 night and then Michelin star their way through service the next.
I tend to the latter view, but I happen to have visited the O’Brien Chophouse 3 times in the past 3 weeks. It’s nestled in Lismore, an hour’s drive from Ballymaloe and it’s rapidly becoming a fancy canteen for students who want to get out of the compound and lavish good food on themselves, there being such a shortage in our dining rooms.
My first visit was for a Slow Food Ireland dinner hosted by my taskmaster and teacher Darina Allen. The purpose of the meal was to celebrate local artisan food and it kicked off with rhubarb bellinis and speeches amid the tumbling greenery of the restaurant’s garden.
Agnes and Wolfgang Schliebitz explained how they hand-make their Knockalara Farmhouse Cheeses and the brewers behind the Dungarven Brewing Company talked about the wonderful world of beer. Afterwards, there was a little rush to try the cheeses and a polite stampede to the beers, which I may have lead.
The beers were superb (I’ve missed you Proper Beer). The Copper Coast Red Ale tastes like a Victorian pub, with roaring fires, bewhiskered landlords and lashing rain outside, while the Helvick Gold Blonde Ale is what you’d drink at barbecues if you had standards and hadn’t been tempted by the 6 cans of Stella for a fiver offer in the corner shop.
The dinner was 4 courses: a lush green salad that tasted like Spring, topped with dollops of fresh, mouth-coating Knockalara ewe’s milk cheese, toasted hazelnuts and, unfortunately, overcooked asparagus; a tranche of beautiful wild salmon coated with perfect hollandaise sauce; pink and juicy local lamb with potatoes and cream soaked greens; and rhubarb mess, which looked like an explosion in a shaving cream factory and tasted divine.
Over cups of fresh mint tea we congratulated ourselves on coming to O’Brien’s. The meal had been €50, including the bellini. I had a glass of prosecco and a shiraz for an additional €14. We agreed that we should definitely come back. 4 days later we had a reservation for Sunday lunch.
There’s a set menu on Sundays: 2 courses for €22.90 and 3 courses for €27.90. I began with a vat of silky leek and potato soup that would’ve made an excellent lunch on its own. However, I ploughed on to roast rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, duck fat roast potatoes, creamed greens and gravy.
This second visit confirmed something I’d thought at the Slow Food meal: the knives aren’t up to the job. The slab of gravy-slicked beef wasn’t remotely tough, but I couldn’t saw my way through it and I’d had the same problem with the lamb. Admittedly, I eat left-handed, so while other people elegantly slice and pick their way through meals, I just go on the attack. But a chop house needs serious knives and the standard offering won’t do.
The sides with the roast were excellent. A solitary, giant roast potato was crisp, fluffy and more than enough, while the Yorkshire pud was proud container for an extra pouring of gravy. Utterly stuffed, we had to skip dessert and drove home to lie on the sofa and contemplate afternoon tea.
My last visit was a Bank Holiday Monday lunch and I began with local squid sliced and deep fried. The squid was bouncy and fresh, but the batter was soggy. It had obviously sat waiting for the other starters to catch up with it. A shame, as the squid was fantastic, as was the tartare sauce.
For main I had hanger steak with bone marrow and chips. A steak knife was subbed in for my dinner knife and it glided through the meat like a socialite through champagne. This is the knife that should be on the table as standard and soppy vegetarians and fish eaters can have something a bit more wimpy handed to them if they’re going to be so foolish.
The marrow offered a rich contrast to the earthy, bloody flavours of the steak and the chips were perfect crunchy dippers for the béarnaise sauce. On every trip to O’Brien’s, the sauces have been stand out brilliant, as have the desserts (when I can manage them).
I finished my Monday meal with dark chocolate tart, home-made pistachio ice cream and whipped cream (why have 1 dairy item on your plate when you can have 2?). I’d been a bit unwilling to order the chocolate tart as I was a tiny bit full and didn’t want anything heavy but dammit, someone at the table had to have it. It was a miracle of cocoa solids and lightness, a cloud of chocolate in a pastry case – airy, rich and a masterpiece.
My bill, including a glass of wine but not service was just under €40 for the Monday lunch. The question is: did my 3 visits change my opinion of the restaurant? And the answer is no. If I’d just written up any one of these meals, the conclusion would’ve been the same: good food; the occasional minor dud; nice, friendly service; worth the trip. What the 3 visits did tell me was where the restaurant excelled (sauces and desserts) and what would’ve improved it (mean, toothy cutlery).
The conclusion: 3 visits to restaurants are unnecessary. If they’re good, they’re good and the O’Brien Chop House is good.