Food, wine, travel, music
When I interviewed Martin Kajuiter for the Irish Examiner shortly after the restaurant opened in 2008, I was impressed with his commitment to sourcing local produce. At St Raphael’s centre in nearby Youghal he had set up a kitchen garden to grow salad greens and vegetables for the hotel. Socially aware, in one of his former employments he had been involved in progressive schemes in the Netherlands where he was born and grew up in a family of restaurateurs. The casual style of the family bistro was his start, but soon as head chef in an Amsterdam restaurant, he was ready for another adventure.
The Cliff Hotel in Ardmore was ideal for someone with a calm ambition and imagination to make the best of local produce. He started to use state of the art technology for quirky takes on basic ingredients. No kangaroo or ostrich for him. Instead he introduced us to bread made with seaweed, salmon served on a plate covered in a dome with a puff of smoke hitting the air as it was removed. It was my first time tasting dehydrated olive oil (it’s everywhere now), chocolate combined with chunky salt which has since caught on in all manner of tarts, mousses and bars of chocolate. He was there to the forefront, running parallel with Ferran Adria in Spain with small morsels of intense tastes and interesting textures with some surprises. It was only a matter of time before he received the Michelin star. Now that he has it, the Cliff House Hotel looks good on a CV and so attracts good staff, essential to maintaining high standards. Led by manager Adriaan Bartels, attention to detail is a priority. It’s a nice place to stay, even in poor weather. The drama of heavy skies can be observed from the pool – a far cry from days when a trip to Ardmore was often a test of endurance as we battled the cliff walk. Ardmore Pottery was and still is, the prize at the end of this and standards are as high as ever with the best quality crafts I know to be found in one place. A clean strand, a round tower and plenty of other walks makes a weekend in Ardmore attractive. This summer in blazing heat it was a sparkling jewel.
Locals dine mostly in the bar where casual food is served as well as on the terrace. Diners from afar come to boast of their experience in another starred establishment. There are companies who seek out such hotels for their top executives, and dinner made with care and attention reflects their expectations of their treasured, driven, top-flight staff members. Well-trained waiters are smart enough for anyone, but naturally chatty too with plenty of local knowledge. They will explain each dish, if you don’t want to guess as you go.
My latest visit was to celebrate the end of university of two of my favourite people who had worked hard to secure themselves top grades in their degrees. It only seemed fair to reward them with at least one star. The tasting menu didn’t disappoint.
For those who like a hearty plate of grub, this is not the menu for you. Rustic food from Italy, France and Spain, as well as Ireland, is hard to beat for flavour and the passion that goes with its production. But occasionally the theatre of a restaurant such as this is an indulgent treat (and there is an la carte menu too with the option of less courses). Few of us would take the trouble to produce such finesse and be able to sit down and relax to enjoy it. For a night out it’s fun, and the attention to detail from the chef and his team is to be celebrated, especially when the work of producing such pretty pictures does not compromise taste.
The first amuse bouche came in a box of beach pebbles echoing the panoramic view of Ardmore strand and the sea below. Beetroot macaroons were sandwiched with local, delicious Ardsallagh goats cheese. The edible stones were potatoes coated in edible clay and topped with smoked mayonnaise and a borage flower. A good and photogenic start.
Breads were served cut almost through in quarters so we could pull a piece off without difficulty. This was a good idea so we didn’t have to commit to just one. All three were delicious.
Our second amuse was a pannacotta white asparagus topped with a green jelly made from herbs and watercress. The herbs overpowered the subtle asparagus, but the texture was creamy and silky. It was topped with dehydrated capers and dried potato croutons. On the side was the texture of the moment – marshmallow – subtly flavoured with ham and melon and coated in finely crushed popcorn.
West Cork scallops sat on a pool of sweetcorn purée. Green cubes were made from jellied sea spinach and the crunch came from crackers flavoured with chicken and lime. A ceviche of scallop provided more intrigue along with Irish herring caviar. On the side was a green salad topped with scallop mayo and a scallop cracker. Delicious.
Beef tartare was topped with a layer of elderflower jelly and quail’s egg yolk. Toasted brioche, a morel mushroom with nasturtium mayo, tapioca pearls marinated with white asparagus juices, sliced purple potato (marinated in beetroot) and duck liver shavings provided contrasts of taste and texture.
Salmon, organic from Bantry, was served with a flourish, the dome removed at table to reveal the smoke, a ballotine of salmon with a touch of horseradish, marinated salmon in beetroot with salmon ice-cream topped with a white borage flower. Savoury ice-creams seem a little passé with Heston Blummenthal’s flogging them to death (or food writers over-writing about them), but that doesn’t mean they are not a treat to eat, especially when they provide contrast on a plate. This one was delicious. Cured salmon was wrapped in herbs and topped with salmon caviar. On the side was a selection of pickled vegetables in a Chardonnay sauce.
Halibut was cut in a rectangle, underneath it potato, fennel and artichoke compote; over it toasted tomato, courgette and aubergine. A green sauce on one side was made from oregano, the other from tomato. Both zinged with flavour. A courgette flower grown in the chef’s garden was deep fried.
A gooseberry sorbet was topped with gaspacho granita. A good idea and necessary to refresh the palate for what was to come.
Rose veal was quite substantial served with green asparagus, broad beans, girolles, veal sweetbreads, potato gnocchi rolled in herbs, jellied droplets of mushroom juices and green droplets made from thyme. A veal jus was drizzled on top. Great flavours.
A goats cheese ice-cream was made from the great St Tola and served with a piece of grilled apricot with fresh almond on top. A little marquise of goats cheese with charcoal in the centre (I’m never sure about charcoal used in cooking, useful for colour perhaps, but not for taste) and had toasted almonds on the outside. Underneath a jelly of apple juice was pink from extract of red cabbage and lavender. Refreshing.
The strawberry plate was a surprise before the listed chocolate selection. It started at the bottom with cookie dough crumb, topped with strawberry and red peppercorn sorbet. The light green foam on top was made from mint. There was a dehydrated strawberry, sliced strawberries marinated in red wine and basil, white chocolate parfait wrapped in mint jelly. Clear jellied droplets were made from tonic and usu Asian lime from Japan. Delicate, yet intense tastes.
Coffee and chocolate are a marriage made in Heaven and on this pate white coffee ice-cream sat beside a rich 80% cocoa and a mint tadpole-shape enclosing a chocolate mousse. On top was a light sea salt and olive oil-based sauce. Chocolate and salt, another celestial marriage. A white crumb made from dehydrated olive oil was crunchy. The orange sauce droplets were made from seabuckthorn berries from a plant growing near the cliff and completed this pretty picture.
We drank a sparkling wine throughout. Tea or coffee afterwards were not needed. Our taste palate was replete.