Over the past couple of years I have eaten in and reviewed many restaurants around Ireland for TheTaste; not just those located in Dublin and the country’s larger cities but also many in our smaller towns and in the countryside. However, living in Connaught I will admit that I always jump at the chance to try out restaurants in the West of Ireland. I fervently believe that there is great food being produced all around this island and that this is something that should be nurtured and celebrated.
One place that is really developing a vibrant food culture is Sligo. The Sligo Food Trail was launched by local food producers and restaurateurs over the summer with the aim of showcasing the county’s rich gastronomic heritage and promoting it as a foodie destination. I love Sligo and as the Town is a relatively short drive from my home in Roscommon, I decided to visit there to have dinner in Eala Bhán recently.
Eala Bhán is situated in the heart of the town beside the Garavogue River – a location that, for me, has echoes of the Left Bank in Paris. White swans can often be seen swimming along the river and it is from them that the restaurant takes its name as Eala Bhán translates from the Irish as ‘the white swan’. The restaurant is owned by Sligo native Anthony Gray who also owns Trá Bhán in nearby Strandhill. As the current President of the Restaurant Association of Ireland Anthony is a well-known figure in the Irish hospitality industry but it is his support of the local food scene that has seen his two restaurants go from strength-to-strength, garnering many awards along the way.
The restaurant closed for a while towards the end of 2015 due to an early-morning fire that broke out on the premises. The fire caused extensive damage but thankfully, after the necessary renovation works were carried out, Eala Bhán opened again and continues to be one of the town’s most popular dining spots. Inside it is decorated in neutral, muted tones. Fairy lights behind gauze curtains cast a magical glow over the elegantly designed dining room whilst quotes from the writer W.B. Yeats – one of Sligo’s most famous sons – are inscribed on the walls. I couldn’t help but smile at a large 3-D wall sculpture of a white swan ‘launching’ itself into the dining room above one of the tables and sitting opposite it during my meal I found myself mesmerised by its imposing presence.
Eala Bhán opens for Lunch each day, serves Afternoon Tea and also offers Early Bird Menu and À La Carte Menus in the evening. The restaurant prides itself on serving locally-sourced Irish food and glancing through the menu this is immediately evident, with local suppliers credited throughout. We chewed on a well-made white bread which was accompanied by homemade pesto and butter whilst we examined the menus, eventually deciding to go À La Carte.
First up was an amuse bouche of Sweet Potato Soup which was served in an espresso cup. It was well-seasoned, flavoursome and warming, giving us a sense of the food that was to follow. Both starters were sizeable; not that we were complaining as we had arrived with good appetites. My Lemon Buttered Scallops (€11.95) was a lovely dish comprising three wonderfully plump and perfectly cooked scallops with a lovely caramelised exterior giving way to a soft centre, full of the sweet tastes of the sea. A saffron aioli was a fragrant accompaniment whilst a pea purée accentuated the inherent sweetness of the scallops. However, it was the slightly acidic apple chutney which, along with the lemon, counterbalanced the overall richness and brought everything alive on the palate.
Across the table, my guest’s Trio of Duck & Cashel Blue Cheese Ice-Cream (€11.95) was a quirky dish but one that successfully showcased the wonderful quality of the duck that was used. A velvety smooth homemade duck liver pate had been well-made and was delicious eaten with the thin slices of toasty bread and red onion marmalade supplied, but we both agreed that the spring roll with its unctuous filling of soft leg-meat and the thin slices of smoked duck breast were the stars of the show. Both were outstanding. I felt that the little side-salad of delicately dressed leaves and red onion was unnecessary and that the unusual and extremely moreish Cashel Blue cheese ice-cream was sufficient.
Moving on to the main course, the Eala Bhán Pork Fillet (€22.95) with its crust of crushed pistachio nuts immediately caught my eye. The pork has been supplied by Feeneys of Sligo pork fillet and had been sensitively cooked so that the meat retained moisture and was succulent. It was served on a bed of buttery mashed potato which included a generous amount of black pudding. A cherry sauce containing loads of whole cherries and an earthy parsnip purée completed the dish. To accompany my pork, I ordered a side of Irish Cider Onion Rings (€3.50) which were amongst the best that I have ever eaten, with a crisp batter coating and a centre of sweet, hot onion.
For his main course, my guest decided on the Catch of the Day – Halibut with Asparagus Risotto (€25.95). Here two pieces of halibut were served with a perfectly made, creamy asparagus risotto. The fish had been nicely seasoned and pan-fried so that its skin was delightfully crispy which contrasted nicely against the softness of the fish. Baby carrots poached in blackcurrant juice were an unusual accompaniment by we both liked how the sourness of the blackcurrants worked with the sweetness of the carrots. This was a great dish. Twice Cooked Fat Chips (€3.50) were everything that a good chip should be – well-seasoned and crunchy on the outside with a soft, fluffy centre.
The Dessert Menu in Eala Bhán is jam-packed with a good selection of classic crowd-pleasers. I quickly decided on the Mini Baked Alaska (€7.95) and it did not disappoint. I love retro desserts and this one, in it simplicity ticked all the right boxes for me. It was made up of a disc of sponge cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream which was covered in Italian meringue before being blow-torched to lightly toast and colour the meringue. The contrasts presented by the toasted meringue and the cold ice-cream has always been something that I find irresistible and this was a very good version. A soft fruit coulis and fresh strawberries completed the dish.
My guest decided on the Eala Bhán Eton Mess (€7.95) – an interesting reworking of this classic dessert where strawberries which had been macerated in port and bananas were folded along with crushed homemade meringues into some lightly whipped cream. A warm milk chocolate sauce completed proceedings and was an unusual addition.
Eala Bhán has a carefully chosen wine list with many wines also available by the glass. From it we chose a 2014 Saint Florin Bordeaux – a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes which, with its soft fruits flavours, went particularly well with the duck and my pork fillet dish.
It is not hard to see why Eala Bhán is so popular both with locals and with visitors to Sligo as the restaurant is serving some really great food. I loved the cosy but classy feel of the restaurant and the warm welcome we received from our waitress Claudine who helped make our night so enjoyable. Anthony Gray has assembled a great team around him including Head Chef Marcin Szczodrowski and Pastry Chef Elina Aleksandrova. If you are in Sligo, make sure to book a table at Eala Bhán.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.