Ballyfin Demesne is a country hotel in County Laois, just over an hour to the west of Dublin. The striking main house nestles by a lake on a huge 610 acre estate. The house was originally built as a private residence in 1820, and then was run for many years as a Catholic boarding school before being sold in 2001 to a wealthy American family. They have spent an undisclosed but clearly vast amount of money over nine years, restoring the house to its original glory. It finally reopened in May 2011, with just fifteen bedrooms. The grounds are spectacular, with one pretty feature being a waterfall running down a long flight of steps at the back of the house.
The chef is Fred Cordonnier, formerly head chef of Patrick Guilbaud for nine years. The mostly (over 90%) French wine list ranges in price from €25 to €995, with around 230 choices. Jourdan Picpoul de Pinet 2010 was €28 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €12, Chassagne Montrachet Abbaye de Morgeot 2009 at €90 for a wine that retails at around €50 and Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 2008 was at €133 for a wine that you can for around €77 in a shop. At the posh end of the list, Haut-Brion 1988 was €625 for a wine that will set you back €454, and Bollinger RD 1997 was €445 compared to a retail price of €192. Suitably, there are some wines from the Irish "wine geese", producers that left Ireland, such as Lynch-Bages and Leoville Barton, but if they wanted to continue this theme on the list then they could have listed wines from producers such as Hamilton-Russell in South Africa, or the Barrets of Montelena in California, or the Horgan family of Leeuwin or the O'Shea's of Mount Pleasant winery in Australia. It was also a pity to see just five dessert wines on the list. Given the clearly huge investment that has been made in the property, the wine list seems rather neglected, though it is moderately priced.
The ground floor dining room is very grand, with widely spaced tables and picture windows with a view over the immaculate gardens. We had two dinners here, as well as some light lunches. The first dinner began with Parmesan gougeres filled with Bechamel sauce; these were light and had good cheese flavour (7/10). An attractive basket of bread (all made from scratch) included bacon and onion brioche, seven seed bread, black olive rolls and cheese bread. The cheese bread, resembling a croissant in flakiness, was the best of the lot, and these were comfortably 7/10 level, one or two being better than this.
Kohlrabi cannelloni had a mango and crab filling, with yoghurt dressing flavoured with paprika. This was an interesting combination of flavours, the slight bitterness of the kohlrabi contrasting with the sweetness of the mango. The bitterness was perhaps a little too strong for the crab, but the high quality of the crab and the ripe mango made this an enjoyable dish (6/10).
Crubeen was a more sophisticated take on the traditional pig trotter dish, here served as a pork croquette with a salad including summer truffles and barley; the crubeen was tasty and the salad a fresh and enjoyable complement to its richness (6/10).
Prawns from County Cork were served with cauliflower and lightly flavoured with curry, served with sultanas and almonds. The prawns had good flavour, though just one of the prawns was a little mushy, which was odd given that the others were all nicely cooked. The cauliflower was carefully cooked and gave an earthy contrast to the prawns (6/10).
Salmon was served with apple, samphire, rocket and nasturtium leaves; this was a nicely balanced dish, the salmon having quite good flavor (6/10). Sea bass was carefully timed, served with a fried shrimp ball, good quality artichoke and lobster and gnocchi (6/10). Pigeon was served with cherries, girolles and parsnip purée. The pigeon itself was cooked nicely, though a little piece of the pigeon liver on the side was cooked for too long, but overall this was still a good dish (6/10).
Strawberries were grown on the Ballyfin estate and were served with a little lemon tart and a basil tuile. The strawberries had good flavour, though still not to the level which you can find in the Mediterranean, but the tart had good pastry and well balanced filling (6/10). A warm chocolate dish resembled a fondant without the exterior, served with nuts and raspberries; the chocolate was from Ecuador and very rich, the raspberries providing some balancing acidity (6/10). Coffee was Nespresso, and had rich flavour. Service was silky smooth and friendly, with the manager who served us able to answer any questions about the food without referring back to the kitchen; dishes arrived at a steady pace, and topping up was flawless.
The following night we had a longer tasting menu. This began with very good prawn tempura with mango dipping sauce, the tempura light (easily 6/10). Cauliflower was served in the style of a tabbouleh, with pink grapefruit, yoghurt, melon and wild sorrel. This worked out very well, the balance of the flavours excellent (6/10).
Hand-dived scallops from west Cork were served with freshly made linguini and summer truffles. This was an excellent dish, the scallops plump and sweet, carefully cooked, while the linguini was delicate (easily 7/10). Duck foie gras was served with heritage carrot (many of the vegetables here are grown in the walled garden on the estate), with spelt and a Sauternes sauce. The foie gras had lovely smooth texture, and the Sauternes sauce is a classic accompaniment, the carrots adding some earthy balance (8/10).
West coast lobster was served in the style of a traditional colcannon dish, with cabbage and potatoes but the lobster adding a luxury element. The lobby was tender, the vegetables carefully cooked (6/10). John Dory from Castletownbere was served with garden cucumber and citrus fruit. John Dory at its best is a glorious fish, and here it was carefully cooked, the cucumber and citrus giving a light flavour balance (7/10). Fermanagh Texel lamb was cooked perfectly pink and had terrific flavour, served with lettuce grown in the estate garden, along with tender sweetbreads and cooking juices flavoured with mustard seeds (8/10).
Desserts began with a "whiskey sour", mixing passion fruit juice with whiskey, an interesting idea that worked quite well (6/10). Araguani chocolate coated a Guinness ice cream as a lolly, with black currants on the side - this tasted better than it sounded, the fruit usefully balancing the restrained taste of the Guinness (5/10). The best dessert was a beautifully presented plate of exotic fruits, with mango, pineapple. Lame. Coconut and pomegranate, all beautifully ripe (8/10).
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable stay. Ingredient quality used was high, with many vegetables down in the grounds of the estate, and excellent Irish lamb and shellfish. The cooking style is elaborate with being over fussy, and has its roots in classical French cooking, with just a few modern touches. The kitchen brigade is clearly accomplished, and over several meals and a large number of dishes produced some lovely dishes, particularly at the second of our two dinners. As an aside, the hotel is really special, the rooms of an extremely high standard, and the house itself has been beautifully restored. It should be noted dinner, at least at the time of writing, is intended for hotel residents and is part of the overall pricing of a stay, though to give you some idea a three course lunch is available for €40, and a hotel resident could invite guests in at an additional €75 per head, not including wine of course.