Review: Lady Helen Restaurant, Mount Juliet

27th December 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

Mount Juliet is on a roll. Over the past 18 months or so, its Lady Helen restaurant has been festooned with awards, winning three AA Rosettes, a Michelin Star and Restaurant of the Year at the Good Food Ireland Awards. It’s the new king of Kilkenny.

Despite all the gongs, however, the hotel’s greatest trick has been to loosen up.

In Celtic Tiger times, Tiger Woods prowled the fairways. Locals envied guests with the mega-bucks to closet themselves away in an 18th century manor built by the Earl of Carrick for his wife, Juliana. The 1,500-acre estate felt like a privileged enclave, an ultra-exclusive stay.

It still is – only now, it all feels a bit more accessible. Day visitors can play golf, book spa treatments, go horse riding or visit its markets. A Taste of Wednesday offer bundles B&B with an eight-course tasting menu at the Lady Helen restaurant from €130pp.

Even if you don’t stay over, Wednesday is the hot ticket. The Lady Helen’s a-la-carte is €65pp for three courses, but on Wednesdays its tasting menu is reduced from €75pp to €55pp (with matching wines at €29pp). For an experience of this calibre, that’s a bargain.

lady helen, mount juliet, restaurant, review

We began with quail (above), served rare and tender with red chicory leaves, apple, truffle aioli and a cromesquis (similar to a small croquette dipped in caul fat) of confit leg.

Paired with a fruity Mâcon-Lugny from Bouchard Père et Fils, it was a promising mix of ambition and restraint – the quail’s plush pinkness chiming with the decadent cromesquis, bitter leaves and lip-smacking velouté. The portion size was perfect, if not truly beautiful.

Another course saw thick slices of Challans duck (below) served with bulgur wheat, ras el hanout (a North African spice mix), rhubarb, turnip and yoghurt. A paired glass of Chinon cabernet franc tickled the spices nicely, and I enjoyed how the coolness of the yoghurt and citrusy notes in the jus pushed the envelope of what could otherwise have been a merely indulgent dish.

lady helen, mount juliet, restaurant, review

Elements and ingredients were explained throughout – as were the fanciful amuse bouche, mid-course, pre-desert and petit fours punctuating the tasting menu. A very knowledgeable young head waiter explained the thinking behind the wine matches too.

The Lady Helen’s dining rooms are every bit as impressive as you’d expect. There are horsey paintings, gilded frames, white linen and silver service. Our feet sank into the carpets. Views roll down to the River Nore. Tall ceilings and swirling plasterwork create a sense of timeless country luxury – you’d half-expect Juliana herself to come floating through the room at any moment.

But the big surprise is the young blood running through this old-school set-up.

Cormac Rowe and Ken Harker (executive and head chefs, respectively) exude youthful dynamism. Our boyish head waiter comes across as shy and nervous at first. Over the course of the meal, however, he reveals not only an intimate knowledge of the food and wine, but the sense of an individual buying wholeheartedly into what his kitchen is trying to achieve.

lady helen, mount juliet, restaurant, review

He introduces a dish of cod with smoked eel, potato, lemon, parsley and hazelnut as new to the tasting menu, for example (above) – and invites our feedback. It’s a pretty composition garnished with titbits of nut and eel, set alongside pureed potato and paired with a Chenin Blanc. The textures combine nicely, but what’s most exciting is the sense of a work in progress.

Clearly, this is accomplished cooking. Execution at the Lady Helen may not yet hit the polished heights of Michelin Star colleagues like Chapter One or The Cliff House, but my lasting impression is of a young team starting to hit their stride, investing traditional surroundings with creativity and curiosity, of bright talents willing to ask questions and try new things.

What’s thrilling is not where they are now – but where they could be in two or three years.

A few blips need to be ironed out. On our visit, for instance, staff were visibly flustered by the tardiness of several diners (“some people can’t arrive on time,” we were told). The polish will come, however – it has to, if customer experience is to match the kitchen’s ambition.

lady helen, mount juliet, restaurant, review

Dessert (above) brought baked lemon cream and a sugar ring tied with a tiny bow of gold leaf, along with goat’s curd parfait, raspberry sorbet and yuzu gel (yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit, similar to a lemon).

By then, I was full – but it was a finely rendered finish indeed.

The tab:

Two tasting menus with wine pairings came to €168, tip extra.

The details:

Mount Juliet, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny; 056 777-3000; mountjuliet.ie.

This Mount Juliet restaurant review first appeared in The Irish Examiner.