A tale of two dinners

The night before last, hubby and I paid an inaugural visit to Paprika, the Indian restaurant in Millstreet. I keep asking the folks around these parts and no one seems to have any idea what it’s like, never having eaten there. Hubby and I decided it was up to us to bravely blaze the trail.

We made our entrance around 7 p.m. on a Thursday night and we the only diners in the joint. Could very nearly have heard crickets chirping, the place was so quiet, and no one else proceeded to come in the entire time we were there for takeaways or otherwise. Hm. Not encouraging, but we soldiered on.

The waiter was Indian, which fueled my belief that the food would actually be authentic and yummy. However, he seemed somewhat flustered by taking our order, which made me nervous. I worried about our entrée requests getting lost in translation, but hoped for the best.

The freebie poppadum was a little stale, but tasty, and came along with a trio of sauces — a tomato chutney, a herbed yogurt raita and some sort of sweetish curry thing. We ordered up a chicken tandoori tikka masala for hubby and a lamb badami korma for me, both with pilau rice, and an order of cheese naan bread. For being the only diners within a ten-mile radius, it seemed to take an inordinately long time to prepare our food. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad sign.

By the time the food finally arrived, I was nearly ready to gnaw my own arm off. The bread was fresh and tasty, but the cheese absent. Our entrees were mostly sauce and skimpy on the meat; the sauces were interestingly spiced but not spicy. The tikka masala was basically a creamy tomato sauce. My korma was more intriguing flavorwise — a yellow yogurt curry thickened with what tasted like ground almonds. Some veggies and a little more meat would have gone a long way to round things out. Both dishes were fine, not stellar, but fine. The meal was a little overpriced for what we got.  To be honest, Shalimar in Indianapolis would put this place to shame.

Don’t know that I’d rush right back to Paprika anytime soon, but wouldn’t be opposed to ordering some take out there at some point in the future.

I fared better last night at my sister-in-law Margaret’s 40th birthday celebration dinner. Bandon (the town where she lives) is much bigger than Millstreet and therefore offers more dining options. The scene of the dinner was a place called Marmatiece, an upscale trendy fine-dining restaurant on the river the flows through Bandon. I’d seen the menu posted in the window during previous walks through town and was excited to see if it was actually as good as it sounded.

The party was a vivacious group of Margaret’s female family and friends, a lively crowd of 15 or so sophisticated ladies that I was honored to be a part of. In spite of our waiter who seemed a little out of sorts about serving that many ladies at once, everything seemed to come off without any major hiccups. We kicked off the evening with champagne and things rolled on from there.

The Marmatiece menu was not extensive, but the dishes all sounded delicious. Think traditional Irish ingredients given modern twists and surprising interpretations. I nibbled the complementary bread and pesto, finally settling on the daily specials for both starter and an entrée.

For my appetizer, I enjoyed an egg roll stuffed with creamy crabmeat and sautéed summer veggies. It was served with a little shallow dish of addictively sweet soy sesame dipping sauce. Although the egg roll wrapper was a little chewy, it was still yummy. The egg roll was pretty good sized, and I kept telling myself it was ok to leave some and save room for my dinner to come, but I couldn’t help myself and polished off every crumb.

About half of the table ordered the monkfish entrée, and most were disappointed when they discovered that the monkfish was really only a small garnishing section of what was actually a large salad. Not me. My perfectly cooked fresh cod was completely delicious – a huge filet that I couldn’t even finish, drenched in a rich beurre blanc sauce atop a bed of sweet peas, bacon and sautéed onion. And because this is Ireland, a few roasted baby potatoes around the edge of the plate. Excellently done.

I was so full I had to pass on dessert, although I must admit, I wasn’t blown away by the choices. The servings I saw looked lovely, especially the pear crumble served in individual French Le Creuset-style baking dishes with tiny carafes of custard sauce and whipped cream, but I wasn’t heartbroken about missing out.

Tomorrow, hubby and I are off for a sneaky romantic getaway at the Ballymaloe House inn. Several of the in-laws have given me gift certificates to use at Ballymaloe Cookery School (think an Irish Cordon Bleu culinary academy), but I couldn’t find anything on the schedule of classes that really tempted me. Fortunately, the kind folks at Ballymaloe said it was no problem to transfer the vouchers to use for accommodation and dinner at the inn, bless them. I’ve been to Ballymaloe once before with my sister-in-law for a fabulous three-course lunch, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll do for their famous weekly Sunday night buffet… stay tuned.

Irish eyes are smiling

I’m sad and embarrassed to admit I’ve neglected my blog so much these past few months, but let’s get jumpstarted back into the entries with my current trip to Ireland!

Hubby is doing a bunch of business in Europe this summer, so instead of a series of trips back and forth over the pond, the toddler and I came along for an extended stay. We’ve settled into my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork as our home base for about six weeks. We’re currently halfway through the trip, and with all the side jaunts we’ve been doing to see various and sundry relatives, the time is flying by.

This is my sixth trip to Ireland, and the weather this time around by far blows away any other visit. Warm, sunny and barely a hint of rain in the past three weeks. Unbelievable for a country where you are likely to experience, as they say, four seasons in one day. I’ve packed horribly wrong by bringing jeans, long-sleeved shirts and even a sweater or two when I could have gotten away with shorts, sandals and sundresses. Who knew? Oddly enough, from what we can tell, Indianapolis has been plagued by terrible thunderstorms and tornado watches since we’ve been away. Talk about a role reversal…

Although Ireland is still full of the same gorgeous green ancient scenery as it has been in the six years I’ve been visiting, I do see some changes happening in my two most recent trips. First of all, the younger generation (and by younger, I mean mine) seems to be moving away from drinking tea into a coffee culture. Cafes and coffee shop/bakeries have been springing up like weeds, serving all manner of hot beverages including fancy flavored lattes. Starbucks hasn’t yet taken over; there was a location next door to the hotel where we stayed in Dublin, but it’s been the only one I’ve seen so far. Sadly, most of the coffee is mediocre at best. Lots of instant powdered, and lots of not-expertly prepared versions. Of course, hubby and I are coffee snobs, having sampled the really good java in France and Italy where baristas really know what they’re doing. Still, I imagine the quality of the Irish joe will only keep improving within the next few years to meet the growing demand.

Other big changes are taking place on the restaurant scene. In the past, dining out in Ireland has been a limited proposition. Menus were very abbreviated, most items automatically came with fries/chips, and everything was pretty expensive regardless of quality or quantity. For that reason, people here don’t seem to dine out very often. Add up the costs for two adults and a couple of kids and you’re likely to drop some serious cash on a dinner or a take-away. (That’s take-out for my fellow Americans.)

Thus, most of our meals have been eaten at home, lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law or one of hubby’s sisters, and they’ve been delicious. But I’m also happy to report I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the meals we’ve enjoyed out these past few weeks.

For example – hubby and I escaped for a date night dinner a couple weeks ago while staying with my sister-in-law in Bandon. Destination? A renovated gastropub called Poachers, renowned for its fish dishes. The place was fairly busy at 8 p.m. on the Tuesday night we were there; obviously, the local community is embracing the changes.

Poachers Inn, Bandon

The menu was nicely upscale, full of pretty fancy, borderline fussy stuff with elaborate garnishes and saucing. Hubby ordered a stuffed chicken breast served with ratatouille vegetables and mashed potatoes. I went for a three-course prix-fixe menu for 25 euros. My starter was a handful of small toasts topped with a whipped goat cheese mousse-like concoction, slivers of preserved lemon and thin slices of beet. A fresh herb salad with pickled cucumbers anchored the center of the plate. Yum.

My main course was two delectable crab-and-prawn cakes topped with a mango plum salsa relish, creamy mayonnaise tartar sauce and more salad. Not a potato in sight – crazy!!! For dessert, hubby and I shared my warm gingerbreadish sticky toffee pudding with a scoop of whipped cream and hearty drizzle of caramel sauce. All in all, a splendid meal. And even more impressive, our total bill (with a couple beers and two glasses of wine) hovered around $75 dollars, easily fair value for the amount and caliber of food.

Restaurant diversity is expanding, too. On an overnight in Dublin, I was thrilled to see all ilk of ethnic eateries. Even in little Millstreet, there is an Indian restaurant and a new pizza place I’d like to try. In Dublin, we ate dinner at a small, modern Italian ristorante near our hotel. Hubby ordered his tried-and-true standby – a pizza salami and I opted for a penne pasta with pesto and thick shavings of pungent parmesan. The food was solid and authentic, not the best I’ve ever had, but certainly tasty enough.

Breakfast the next morning was another story. Thanks to hubby’s fortuitous suggestion to follow an unexplored side street, we came across a tiny café advertising breakfast all day. Sold, and in we went. As I mentioned earlier, cafes are popping up a dime a dozen all around these parts, but this was a particularly good one. We nestled into a small table toward the back under skylights next to a small open-air patio and started browsing through a menu full of breakfast choices.

After much consideration, hubby and I settled on the same item – a super-freshly prepared huge croissant sandwich with cheese, salty slabs of Irish bacon and scrambled egg, served with a small ramekin of delicious Ballymaloe tomato relish (a sweetish, spicy, chunky ketchup). For the toddler, we ordered pancakes — which I keep forgetting are actually crepes here — with sliced banana and Nutella. We also couldn’t resist ordering a “Babychino” for him, a cup of sweet steamed milk with chocolate shavings on top, which our picky little boy soundly refused to drink, although he did polish off the crepes and Nutella without much coaxing.

Speaking of Ballymaloe, Ireland’s well-known culinary school empire, I have several gift vouchers that I’m hoping to make use of with a wonderful lunch or dinner, if not an overnight stay at the inn. More to come on that later…

Other meals that stand out thus far – a simple traditional roast chicken and boiled ham dinner from my mother-in-law. Rounded out with classic roasted potatoes and vegetables, it was Irish cooking at its best. Also memorable was a fresh cannelloni my brother-in-law whipped up, complete with handmade pasta and a savory ricotta/mascarpone/ground beef filling and topped with tomatoes. Oh. My. Goodness. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous.

Here’s to more good eats to come, and slainte!