After checking in to our beautiful room with amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean and enjoying a pleasant walk along the cliffs, we were hungry and so headed down for dinner.
We plumbed for the eight course tasting menu and to our delight discovered that it was actually eight courses. A lot of restaurants in Ireland now are masquerading an á l carte menu as a tasting menu by, for example, taking three courses and adding an amuse bouche and a pre dessert and selling it as five course tasting menu. This is very cheap, very annoying and needs to stop. We have even seen cases where the amuse bouche and pre-dessert are given with the á la carte menu anyway, so all you get with the tasting menu is less choice for a higher price. Amuse bouches, sorbets and pre-desserts should be free, offered at the discretion of the chef and not part of the course count on a menu. Rant over and bravo to The Cliff House for doing it right.
The meal started brilliantly. Skilful and moreish amuse bouches and excellent breads opened the taste buds and set expectations high. The first few courses continued the excellence. Nicely cooked scallops with caviar and a Dutch salad was very good, but maybe they are two separate dishes and would have worked better if served in two parts; the Dutch salad first and then the scallops. A dish of beef tartare topped with an elderflower jelly with foie gras and broad beans was beautiful and married the tartate and foie gras well. Next up was the best dish of the night. Salmon smoked perfectly in oak with a salmon ice cream and pickled vegetables showed a great respect of the ingredients, clarity, finesse and balance. It was a faultless dish.
At this stage of the meal the food had been top quality and the errors nothing more than minor quibbles. The anticipation of what might be coming next was nearly unbearable. Sadly though this standard did not continue. In fact, it dropped to a level that had us wondering if, half way through designing this tasting menu, the chef had to step out and asked a commis chef to finish the job. Dull halibut served with "ratatouille 2014" (at least we knew it was made this year), that overpowered the fish completely. This was followed by badly cooked lamb served with a chewy and inedible piece of sweatbread and gnocchi. The whole dish seemed a random selection of badly cooked ingredients. A cheese course next. Some rest-bite we thought - cheese is cheese after all and hard to mess up. We were wrong as this course was the worse of all. How to describe it? Well, imagine the texture of a split, light, foamy cream. It was quite repulsive and was not redeemed by the somewhat pleasant after-taste that comes sometime later. The idea of serving a lighter take on a cheese course in the summer is a good one, but this is certainly not how to go about it.
Desserts next and we are hoping the chef had stepped back in or the pastry chef had never left. First up was a strawberry dish that was served with far too much foam. The strawberries themselves were unremarkable and it was a bit sedentary. Thankfully the meal ended on a high note with an addictive chocolate and coffee serving. It demonstrated good chocolate work and managed to be both decadent and light.
The tasting menu was served with pairing wines, many of which from countries that generally don't make it on to restaurant wine list, such as Lebanon, Morocco and Greece. Some of the wines were very good and matched the food quite well, but the Languedoc sparkling rosé paired with the desserts tasted cheap and medicinal.
The staff and service were more-or-less faultless and would not be out of place in any high end restaurant.
It is rare to have a meal that had such highs and such lows. The food highlighted some excellent seasonal Irish produce and they were mingled well with the Dutch influence of Chef Martijn Kajuiter. The cookery at times showed skill, precision, balance and finesse, but at other times, these attributes were missing with clumsy and careless cooking. The presentation of most dishes was outstanding, but that crossed the line into style-over-substance on poor dishes.
In all we left with frustration. How can a kitchen produce such excellence on the same menu as such failure. Regardless, we saw enough to see that on its day this restaurant could delight, and so, a return visit is not off the cards.