There’s been a lot of hype around Gregans Castle and head chef Mickael Viljanen and that will probably only increase now he has won the Best Chef in Ireland award at the Irish Restaurant Awards a few weeks ago. Myself and my wife recently made the trip down to Ballyvaughan after booking into the hotel for a special two day deal they were doing which included accommodation, breakfast both mornings and a six course meal in the restaurant for €239 per person. We also upgraded to the full tasting menu for an extra €25 each.
Having booked our table for 7.30 (if availing of the tasting menu all bookings must be before 8pm) on the Saturday night we arrived in the dining room a little too early but this wasn’t a problem as our table was already set and waiting. As no menus were required we began pretty much immediately with a tiny hors d’œuvre consisting of a lettuce macaroon with a prawn cocktail filling which was a nice, playful way to start but more importantly tasted fabulous.
After this was an amuse bouche of raw yellowfin tuna, green tomato, soy sauce, grapefruit and sorrel although as my wife’s pregnant we had to send hers back and the kitchen obligingly replaced the fish with artichoke. Either way it was excellent with lots of big fresh flavours coming from the tomatoes, grapefruit and sorrel but still being light enough so the tuna wasn’t lost.
Our first course was salmon poached in olive oil at 42˚C, cucumber, avocado, radish and eel bavaroise and as you can see from the picture* the presentation was absolutely gorgeous; in fact, you almost felt guilty breaking it up with your fork but at least it tasted just as good as it looked. I’d probably go as far to say that it was the best salmon dish I’ve eaten (even better than the one I had in The Fat Duck): the unique texture of low temperature cooked fish is something I really like anyway but I thought the bavaroise was the best part as it tied all the different flavours on the plate together.
Next for me was a foie gras terrine with pain d’epice, honeycomb, pear and almond which featured a medley of different textures (a theme very prevalent throughout the meal) including thin slices of raw pear, a sorbet, powdered gingerbread, pear syrup and the crunchy honeycomb. I enjoyed this a lot especially the variety of different treatments applied to the ingredients but if there was one criticism it would be that too many of the components were sweet, I like a bit of acidity with foie gras to cut through its immense richness. As liver is another thing on the forbidden list during pregnancy my wife was given a great substitution of lobster, crispy pigs head, leek ash, hazelnut and potato jelly and it was outstanding: the pork in particular was delicious and the burnt leek was a really interesting touch.
Following on from this was another of the night’s most successful plates of food both in terms of taste and presentation: veal sweatbread with beetroot roasted in burnt butter (amongst other textural variations like jelly), malted rye and apple. The sweetbread was almost as tender and velvety as a piece of fried foie gras and when combined with the butter and the earthiness of the beetroot and rye it was just spectacular.
After the richness of the previous two dishes, we moved onto something lighter with cod, wild asparagus, seaweed and a shellfish consomme; the fish had been cooked sous vide but at a higher temperature than the salmon so it was nice and firm (although the menu did say monkfish so maybe the waiter made a mistake in telling us it was cod) although it was a tad over-seasoned at the pass; the consomme was exquisite, in fact, one problem was that everything was served on a plate rather than a bowl and as there was also no spoon most of the lovely broth ended up going to waste (although I was tempted to disregard proper etiquette and drink from the plate).
Our main course was squab pigeon (including the giblets and a croustillant made with the leg meat), carrots (once again in various textures), pickled mushrooms and dates. I was very impressed by this, there were lots of different flavours but they all worked so well together without getting in the way of the meat and the offal was especially good. There was one problem though which if you look at the picture you might be able to spot: it was cooked at an extremely low temperature and was too rare for my wife to eat (another no-no when pregnant apparently). We probably should have sent it back to be cooked through on the stove but we didn’t and I ended up eating it as it was far too good to leave on the plate only to be thrown out; when we told the waitress she was very apologetic and said she would inform the kitchen.
We then moved onto the final phase of the meal with an unusual predessert of celery sorbet and apple which was excellent: a lovely, refreshing way to bridge from savoury to sweet. The dessert itself was pineapple (once more in a multitude of ways), ginger and sea buckthorn and was intensely tropical unfortunately to the point that the normally powerful citrus flavour of the buckthorn got lost.
Just as we thought we were about to finish up, the waitress brought us out an unexpected treat in the form of another pudding to share and explained it was compliments of the chef due to the problem we had had with the pigeon. This was just brilliant: there were compressed, jellied, crystallised and spherified strawberries and various treatments of milk from powder to ice-cream and as you can see yet again the plating was sublime; technical skill aside the most important thing was it tasted absolutely gorgeous, maybe I should have been cheeky and demanded a second plate!
Our final course was the petit fours and the best of these were the macaroons and the chocolate lollipops even though everything else was also very good; by this stage we had eaten a lot of food so it was a nice time to finish because I would say any more and it would have been just too much.
For wine, you could get a glass with each dish for an extra fifty euro so I chose that but unfortunately I didn’t take note of any of their names; the matches were generally well suited and the pourings were really generous as well. Particular highlights were the dessert wine accompanying the foie gras and a Cote De Rhone paired with the pigeon.
Service was for the most part good although somewhat uneven, as I said the maitre d’ was very generous with the wine and he even topped me up three times on separate occasions when I’d finished my glass a bit too quickly; the extra dessert for the mix up with the meat course was also a nice touch. On the bad side, the girl who was serving us at the start seemed like it was her first day: at one point she picked up and then piled our dirty cutlery into a small heap on the side of the table instead of taking them away and then left me without any clean ones for my next course; another time when she served us our food she just put it down without a word and we only found out what it was when we asked the person collecting our plates when we’d finished. That said, it made little difference to our enjoyment of the meal so there wasn’t much of an issue.
So, is the hype justified? I would have to say it definitely is, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in Ireland and some of the most visually stunning plating I’ve ever seen; the food is innovative and incredibly technically accomplished but manages to avoid the gimmickery we’ve seen too many be guilty of when trying to use the modernist techniques of the past ten to fifteen years. This is a chef who is cooking at an unbelievably high level and I think he’s only going to get better. In fact, I would bet if Mickael Viljanen was working in Dublin he would already have a Michelin star by now, but that says far more about Michelin’s shortcomings than it does about him.
* As an aside, all these pictures were taken from from Mickael Viljanen’s Twitter feed.