So that there’s no doubt at the outset let’s just say that Oriel of Gilford is Ireland’s latest Michelin starred restaurant which Lizzie Meagher and I reviewed in the April 2002 issue of FOOD & WINE Magazine.
Although we drove up and dined together and, obviously aired our thoughts on the long drive back home, we did not collaborate on the writing of our reviews, neither seeing the other’s until it was set for the issue.
And, let’s make it clear, we did not drive 190 miles of an evening intent on making a name for ourselves by doing a hatchet job.
Also, there’s not much wrong with Oriel that a little sharper attention to detail would not put right. In particular, much of the food was staggeringly good.
We are aware that Oriel of Gilford has a loyal following which they have obviously built up by providing good food and service and an enjoyable experience. All I can say is, it did not happen for us on the night.
Victoria (my elderly Land Rover), health much improved by a battery transplant, spirited Lizzie and I up to the County Down village of Gilford in exactly the two hours ten minutes decreed by the AA. Quite a way to drive from Dublin for dinner, some might think, but the allure of road testing Ireland’s latest Michelin-starred restaurant proved irresistible.
‘What attracted the fat, white, roly-poly food gurus to this obscure neck of the woods in the first place?’ we mused. Could it have been that nearby Tandragee is the home of Tayto? Well it was certainly a crisp night. We were glad to get indoors. We weren’t exactly welcomed, more ‘allowed enter’ before the meeter-and-greeter (who turned out to be chef/proprietor Barry Smyth) took our coats and hung them on the open rail in the lounge that served as reception area. It was a barn of a room, cold as charity despite, or maybe because of, the token log fire. The décor did not inspire. The assortment of pine tables left an imprint on the memory and the hard sofa on the person.
We perused menu and wine list at leisure, the latter an 80 bottle (plus ‘stickies’) selection of reasonable interest, majoring on France. Curiously, Châteauneuf du Pape was listed under Burgundy. Prices seemed equivalent to the less rapacious of Dublin restaurants, example: Fleur du Cap Sauvignon Blanc £13.95 (approx e21). We chose a Rully 1er Cru, ‘Gresigny’ 1999, at £32, enjoyable enough but approaching the cusp of fadeout, in my opinion.
My starter was outstanding. A fricassée of cockles and mussels with linguini pasta in a sea of cucumber and ginger (killer combination) velouté, topped with a tempura oyster. It was so good I was tempted to ask for an encore. Lizzie’s scallops with beetroot jus and red onion jam were pretty fine too.
In stark contrast, my main course was – and I’ve thought hard and long before damning it – a (literally) bloody disaster. The centrepiece was ‘breast of Linconshire duckling’ so muscle toned tough you’d have sworn it had walked all the way from the Fens. What’s more this dish didn’t just pay homage to the current religion of serving duck pink – it was a suicide bomber for the cause; the interior red raw. It came with an inconsequential pomme fondant, an insipid thyme jus and (oh, no, not again!) that inane ‘confit’ of carrot.
Lizzie’s typing away next to me as I write, so doubtless she’s detailing her braised belly of Ulster pork of which I partook of a forkful. It was tasty but not melty enough for my liking. I have to say I’ve met it rendered better elsewhere.
The proprietor, now in the guise of sommelier, erred by topping up our glasses three times in quick succession. At some point he must have copped on to our irritation because he switched tactics, thereafter ignoring our empty glasses. We’d ordered side dishes – roast winter vegetables which turned out to be carrots and parsnips heavy anointed with curry powder and maybe cumin and tarragon, very aggressive spicing; and some large charlotte potatoes, delicious but dominating by their sheer physical presence on the otherwise tidily-arranged plate. I mentioned this afterwards to the proprietor and he told us that the mains didn’t need such accompaniment, they were just on the menu as a sop to the locals who liked their food bulked up. Pity he didn’t tell us this before we’d ordered.
The desserts came and with them, a return to form. Mine was a delicious trio – fresh coconut panna cotta, malibu sorbet and a pineapple granita, three complimentary flavours, aesthetically displayed and quite brilliant, though not enough to rescue the meal after the main course. During our post-prandial chat we gave what we thought was an honest appraisal but I don’t think it was too well-received. We paid the bill and were allowed to leave.
Discussing Oriel on the drive home our biggest nark was the underwhelming service. The grub was decent enough, saving my Apocalypse Now of a main, but as to why this place was accorded a Michelin star I’ve absolutely no idea. Aldens, Brooklodge, Chapter One, Jacobs on the Mall, Jaipur, Longueville House, Wineport and maybe half a dozen others could, with some justification, holler “Unfair!”
I am not a restaurant critic, well not in the crusty old cynic vein anyway. I review restaurants and prefer to leave the extraneous caustic commentary to others. In saying that a recent trip to Oriel of Gilford, the most recent Irish restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star, left me cold. Perhaps my expectations were too high, anticipation building by the mile on the two hour journey up. But a Michelin star raises expectations – that’s what it’s all about. It speaks of faultless food, stellar service and stylish surroundings – all of which need not be ludicrously expensive but should exude a certain refinement and polish that sets it apart from the rest.
From the outside Oriel looked small but welcoming. Their contemporary logo and blue and orange geometric signage stood out in the sleepy town. Once in though things began to dip. We were seated in the reception room which was depressingly decorated from the dregs of an old Argos catalogue by the looks of it. Mismatched ‘chunky’ pine tables, gaudy patterned sofas and those nasty shop-bought framed prints hanging on the walls. All perfectly fine to find in a basic but comfortable rural B&B, but a Michelin star restaurant?
Chef-proprietor Barry Smyth came out to greet us. Not oozing warmth; professionally reserved, let’s say. The menu was full of promise. A tempting seven-course tasting menu keenly priced at £50 (apx E75) and an à la carte winter menu. The phrase ‘winter menu’ was appealing – highlighting the emphasis Barry places on seasonality, sourcing local Irish ingredients as much as possible and supplementing with fresh French ingredients delivered weekly from the Rungis Market in Paris. While we perused, a plate replete with tasters of salmon tempura, game chips and home made tapenade with garlic toasts arrived. The tempura was their own interpretation but all were very good.
We opted for à la carte and chose a bottle of white Burgundy, a Rully, to slake our thirst.
We were led into the equally dreary dining room. But things picked up when my starter of seared scallops, beetroot purée, beetroot jus and red onion jam arrived – it was extremely good. The salty finish on the sea scallops worked wonders with the sticky sweetness of the jam.
To follow I went for the braised belly of Ulster pork, creamed cabbage, black pudding, caramelised pearl onions. An haute cuisine take on the ol’ ‘pigs bum, cabbage and potatoes’ number. It was wonderful. The pork was savoury sticky on the outside and flaked apart once you forked in. The flavours ran as smoothly together as ever but the black pudding threw up an unexpected bump, too strong and almost sour tasting.
We had also ordered side dishes which was a mistake. Carrots and parsnips came roasted and spiced which overwhelmed all other flavours. While the dish of boiled Charlotte potatoes was awkward and out of place beside the delicately presented plates.
Desserts however took things up a notch with a study of Valhrona chocolate and pistachio which was elegantly presented with hot gooey dark chocolate and sweet nutty pistachio bringing out the best in each other. Coming to a conclusion over coffee, it’s really the problem of consistency that irks. While the food in Oriel was ambitious and the chefs clearly talented – the standard wavered substantially and certainly the overall experience was more ‘grand’ in the colloquial sense than grand in the true meaning. Which, to my mind, calls the whole Michelin star rating system into question.
The Oriel, 2 Bridge Street, Gilford, Co Down BT63 6HF. Tel: (048) 3883 1543 Open: Tues-Sat 5.30-9.30pm; Lunch: Sunday only. Closed Monday