Fermanagh may not be the first county that springs to mind when you think of a night or two away, especially with the sterling/euro differentials at the moment. However, we discovered somewhere that will more than make it worth your while. Less than two hours outside Dublin, we couldn’t help but think on the drive up that Lough Erne Resort feels like a million miles away from the hustle and bustle. Just outside the picturesque and immaculately preened Enniskillen, which brought back many memories of driving up here as a kids for a shopping trips, you will find some of the most striking lakes in the land, not to mention a championship golf course to rival the best. We were only up for the one night and were more than impressed as we drove the long winding road from the entrance gate to the main hotel.
Having never stayed here before we took out one of the many golf buggies on offer to take a spin around the expansive grounds. It always amazes us just how much effort and money must go into maintaining such a resort, the fact they will be hosting the Irish Open in 2017 speaks volumes about the groundsmen and the trojan work that goes on (very subtly) every day. The resort itself comprises of the main hotel and several lodges and villas, ideal for families or large groups. We were fortunate to be upgraded to a spacious suite, the design of the hotel means most rooms have panoramic views of both Castle Hume Lough and The Faldo Championship Golf Course. There is a lot to be said about the calming effect looking out onto the lakes has. Their Thai spa also overlooks the lakes making it the perfect day if you’re married to a golfer! Taking all this into account it’s no surprise Lough Erne Resort was Northern Ireland’s first five star hotel. The resort was recently bought by an American consortium and huge investment is planned to ensure the standards remain five star.
One of the things we, and many other guests seem to enjoy was the fact the hotel has employed so many local staff from Cavan and Fermanagh. Great local knowledge and the warmth of local charm are something that never goes out of fashion. We sat down in the bar before dinner for a cocktail which, by the way, was superb and something a lot of hotels outside the big cities can fall down on. Not here, it was one of the finest whiskey sours we’ve sampled in a while. The highlight of Lough Erne for us was to finally sample some of Noel McMeel’s now legendary cooking. From a young age, McMeel has trained and worked in some of the top kitchens not only in Europe but also in the States. Not many chefs can boast they were responsible for Paul McCartney’s wedding dinner, not that McMeel would tell you this as he is probably one of the most down to earth chefs you will meet – must be the dairy farming background! Noel’s recent book ‘The Irish Pantry’ won third best cook book in the world at the 20th World Gourmand Cookbook Awards which took place in the Yantai Wine Region, China, no mean feat as he was the only representative on the shortlist for both the island of Ireland and for the UK.
The menu in The Catalina Restaurant is completely a la carte with plenty of choice on offer which changes regularly to ensure Noel can offer top quality, traceable, in season produce. We started off the evening with a selection of in house breads: plain soda bread, treacle bread and our personal favourite, the lightly spiced curried bread.
We placed our trust in the hands of the kitchen and started with a hearty little taster of a Pork Fritter from black bacon producer Pat O’Doherty which was given a Lough Erne makeover with some apple butter, beetrrot purée and pecan. A fantastic prelude to the Dromoland Quail starter which had been roasted to perfection with caramelised pear, little droplets of celeriac purée and an ingenious cabbage sauvignon blanc sauce. The confit spring roll was definitely the element that set this dish apart. The best was yet to come in the dainty form of a Rabbit Pithivier, not the easiest of ingredients to be inventive with but by God did this taste wonderful. Delicate puff pastry housed the gamey meat which was delicately glazed and sat atop a bed of creamed cabbage with thyme infusion and crispy Fermanagh black bacon.
Noel had explained to us how spoilt he is with fresh fish suppliers in the area and sent us out a wee sample of one of his favourite dishes at present Scallop and Mackerel accompanied by a stunning tomato and chorizo jam, tiny tip of asparagus and avocado purée. We paired this with a rich and elegant Le Verger Chablis 2012 from Lough Erne’s impressive wine list.
If you come all the way to Lough Erne then McMeel’s signature plate – “The Lough Erne Pork Dish” is a definite must try. Reflecting the very best of local producuce very different elements of pork are meticulously plated together to form one of the most impressive dishes for any pork lover to feast on. A fillet of succulent pork, braised pork cheek, a traditonal ham hock fritter, a crisp little pork belly bite and an inventive palmier of black pudding. If ever there was a dish to showcase modern Irish cooking, this is it. The pork was never going to be outdone but our second main Breast of Thornbill Duck was as close a rival as you will probably get. Two mouthwatering pieces of duck arrived pink but with perfect crackling, giving it a distinctive bite. There is no doubt a very talented team is working damn hard in the kitchen. Unlike a normal restaurant, hotel restaurants can face very different challenges in keeping a menu creative but also appealing to broad tastes. For us the duck was a perfect example of using a popular ingredient seen on many menus and really bringing it to life with ornamental prensentaion of wild mushroom, watercress puree cubed beetroot, carrot cream and a sublime yet classic duck and orange reduction.
We had heard that Lough Erne’s soufflés were pretty special and a Rhubarb Soufflé sounded even better, light and fluffy with a tiny pot of crème anglaise, Glastry vanilla ice cream and a buttery rhubarb shortbread biscuit. A seemingly simple dish but one that many chefs avoid as it can be hard to perfect and time, good to see the guys at Lough Erne are well up for a challenge.
We finished with a small plate of Irish Cheeses and the most fantastic homemade made cheese crackers and toasted raisin breads. Even taking in to account the current exchange rates, £45 for 3 courses of food made to this standard represents more than good value.
Noel makes a point of popping around to every table throughout the night to make sure the experience is one to remember but the thing that makes him different to a lot of high profile chefs is his unwavering enthusiasm for food, watching him interact with his diners and his delight and interest in what dish and ingredient really stood out is quite infectious. This easy going charm is something which we found in all the staff at Lough Erne, not only are they showcasing Northern Ireland produce at it’s finest but also it’s people and the unique charm you will find in this part of the land.
One night B&B including a 3 course dinner in The Catalina Restaurant is available for €132pp.
This is an Outstanding Taste we highly recommend.