It would be churlish to write an account of a visit to Borris, Co Carlow without making at least a passing mention of local man Arthur McMorrough Kavanagh. Born in 1831, as fourth in line to a substantial inheritance, Arthur consisted at birth of but a head, a torso, four stumps in place of limbs and a set of genitals. It was said a local witch had put a spell on his mama. Despite these horrendous disadvantages, Sir Arthur grew up to become a proficient horseman and an accurate shot. Arthur developed a taste for travel, touring France and Italy in 1841. Also Egypt, with his mother and brother in 1846, during which trip the Kavanaghs crossed Sinai on horseback and visited Jerusalem and Beirut. Subsequent excursions took in Scandinavia, Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and India. Other exploits included becoming Unionist MP for Wexford, sailing from New Ross to Westminster to take up his seat; marrying his cousin, with whom he had four sons and three daughters; writing a best-selling travelogue and helping develop local industries, including Borris lace. After encountering Arthur’s saga I stopped whinging about the pain in my big toe (incipient gout? venous stasis? trod on?) for a whole 24 hours.
In Main Street, across the road from the entrance to Borris House, the Kavanagh family’s ancestral pile, once the residence of the High Kings of Leinster, there is a small hotel called The Step House. The building was formerly a dower house for the estate. In the associated next door pub , owned by the Coady family for five generations, I got into conversation with a local who told me that the building derived its name from an architectural feature; the front steps, being the elevated location from which the doughty Arthur McMorrough Kavanagh was lowered onto his horse. In my subsequent research, I have to say I found no corroboration of this. Whatever, The Step House is a pleasant place for an overnight or a weekend’s dalliance. The original building has French doors at the rear, leading to charming gardens, with views of Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs range. The accommodation has been added to by building on. In the cellar is a restaurant called, ta-da, The Cellar Restaurant where a talented young chef, Alan Foley, with a track record that includes Sheen Falls Lodge and Chapter One, works his own spells, involving, chiefly, a preponderance of local produce.
The menu is priced at €30 for two courses, €40 for three with a €5 supplement for the fillet of Hereford beef. The dining room is nicely tricked up with, at least when there’s a stretch in the evening, a view of the gardens. Sibella and I, immediately on being seated, were supplied with a basket of exceptionally good bread, made on the premises. I’m never quite sure whether I regard the copious provision of bread as a blessing or a curse but we got stuck in anyway. The menu comprised five starters and five mains. From this we selected the foie gras and chicken terrine and the pithivier of Tom Salter’s free range pork with a ‘piccalilli of vegetables’ and an apricot glaze. This incurred ten minutes extra waiting time (presumably to bake the puff pastry topping). Pithiviers (pies, to the uninitiated) , are high fashion at the minute and this was a very good version. In particular, the flavour of the pork, which had undergone but a welly-stride journey from Fenagh in the same county, was exceptional. The piccalilli, vinaigrette made with a light touch, was an appropriate foil. I was glad Sibs had chosen the terrine, although feeling maybe a tad guilty that I had steered her towards it, chiefly by exaggerating the pie element in pithivier. She did permit me to try some; I liked it a lot and though the celeriac/vanilla and pickled mushroom accompaniment sounded odd, it worked well.
We ordered two wines from the short but carefully composed list. Oddly enough, I’d met the makers of both. Didier Seguier had the maybe unenviable task of taking over from old William Fevre of the eponymous domaine, one of Chablis’ great characters and a man of strong, frequently quirky opinion. Didier, much to his credit, has eliminated the ‘hit or miss’ element and the Chablis 2013, a half bottle, showed lovely floral, citrus and mineral qualities. Jonathan Maltus, too, is a real character; an entrepreneur with an eye for small plots with potential in the vicinity of more exalted properties. Pézat is his ground floor wine, made just outside the St.Emilion appellation and to exacting standards. It always punches well above its weight and, emphasised as we consumed the 2006, it ages gracefully. For her main course, Sibella had the roast Breckland duck and her request for “No blood” was acceded to without the habitual raising of eyebrows. Service, I must say, was impeccable all night, the manner informal in a way that allowed staff to convey that they were ‘foodies’ too but without any of that “I’m your new best pal” slush that seems lately to have crossed the Atlantic. The roast wild sika deer went a good way to restoring my faith in venison, dented somewhat of late. Sika sounds exotic but there is plenty about. In Wicklow and parts of North Wexford, the deer population is booming and culls are being called for. The venison, sliced into medallions, smoked bacon cream, pearl onion, also a sauce poivrade and, yes, there it was, a small black fig, lurking like that party guest, the one who hides in a corner all night wondering why he was invited. I really don’t know why chefs are so fond of these abominations; they have no flavour, add little if anything to visual appeal and end up being thoroughly annoying when the seeds get suck in your teeth. The one blemish in two nigh-perfect platefuls.
To follow, Sibella had the mango and passion fruit parfait and was wholly enraptured. I had the cheese plate for which there was a €2 supplement and received a nap hand of Irish cheeses, all in pristine condition except for the Cashel Blue which was a tad underripe. Kudos to the grape relish accompaniment, afraid I forgot to ask if it was made in-house.
Afterwards I asked to meet Alan Foley who took me into his chill room where I saw a sika carcass and several large joints hanging. The pride in the chef’s voice was palpable as we discussed food provenance and quality; here is a man in love with what he does and, on the night, it showed with most every morsel we consumed.
To conclude, The Step House is one of the best representatives of a genre becoming increasingly common. That is, restaurants that are not just ‘diners on the Dublin Road’ but standalone destinations. Properly marketed, such places should become the keystone of Ireland’s food tourism.
The Cellar Restaurant at The Step House, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow Tel: 059 977 3209