The devil isn’t just in the detail at Ballyfin; it’s in the big picture too.
A lavish, Regency-era mansion sitting pretty in a private demesne beneath the Slieve Bloom Mountains, this is not only one of the most extravagant five-star hotels in the country, but one of its most exquisitely restored country estates.
From the moment we are greeted Downton Abbey-style by staff standing outside the entrance, barely a step is out of place. Sumptuous suites, an 80-foot library and an inlaid floor based on the Lion Court of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada are just the start of an experience quite unlike anything else I’ve experienced in Irish hospitality.
Imagine if the Merrion Hotel, or Ashford Castle, had just a dozen or so suites. And butlers offered to pack and unpack your bags. That’s the level of luxury we’re talking.
Naturally, all of this comes at a price. Chicago businessman Fred Krehbiel and his wife Kay spent almost a decade restoring Ballyfin (longer, in fact, than the Coote family took to build it almost 200 years ago) and summer doubles start from €1,075 a night.
Needless to say, my visit was hosted. I’d be bankrupt if it wasn’t.
An extravagance? Certainly. Fewer than 30 guests stay at a time (Kanye West and Kim Kardashian reportedly stayed on their honeymoon), and though the rates include meals, pre-dinner drinks and activities ranging from fishing to boating and picnics on the estate, it’s clear what they are buying: absolute and utter exclusivity.
All of which brings me to the food. Dinner is only available to residents, which adds to the intrigue, and is preceded by a formal cocktail hour in the rotunda and library. Entering the State Dining Room feels like stepping through a portal to Versailles.
This is a crisply luxurious space, with lavish stuccowork, twinkling chandeliers and plush portraits overlooking the gardens and their marvelously symmetrical cascade. Taste and money don’t always go together, but here they click like a choreographer’s fingers.
From a choice of three starters, I go for a cauliflower risotto with garden micro herbs, cocoa jelly and cauliflower crisps – a creamy celebration of this unglamorous vegetable. The maître d’ recommends a Pouilly-Fuissé to go with it, and it’s the perfect wingman – though pedants (i.e. me) may note it comes at an extra price.
Our second starter is the evocatively-named ‘Castletownbere Hand Dived Scallops’ (above), served with Serrano ham, spring truffles and sea kale. Surprisingly, the scallops are almost cold – though they are perfectly delicate and combine devilishly with the ham.
Both starters are stacked in pretty arrangements – a blast of contemporary styling on opulent tableware that would serve just as well in the 1820s.
There’s a choice of two main courses on our visit – an Irish Red Dexter fillet of beef with burnt leeks, marinated cabbage and Swede fondant, or a fillet of Kilmore Quay line-caught turbot with fennel citrus salad, olive oil and potato puree.
Again, the presentations are gorgeous – my fish sits on a bed of puree, topped with an artful clump of leaves and a spoonful of caviar. It’s light and lovely, with the crunchy fennel providing a nice counterpoint to the creamy mash and squishy fish.
The steak is a more substantial dish, drizzled with jus and flanked by some mouthwatering roast vegetables. The carrot is so tasty, we ask the waiter for the recipe. He returns with a note from the chef (Ryan Murphy), telling us it has been brought to the boil in a bath of orange, shallot, ginger and thyme, strained at 40-degrees, vacuum-packed and steamed at 100-degrees for just over 25 minutes before joining its colleagues on the plate.
Devil in the detail, eh?
Of course, Ballyfin won’t be to everyone’s taste (not to mind price-point). If you’re splashing out, saving up for a significant anniversary or looking for a handy alternative to your Relais & Châteaux regular in the Dordogne, however, it could be the meal out for you. Country houses don’t come more polished than this.
A night at Ballyfin, plus full-board, starts from €1,075 for a double room in June, July and August. Tips and alcoholic drinks are extra.
Ballyfin, Co. Laois; 057 875-5866; ballyfin.com
This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.
Key words: Ballyfin restaurant