“When was the last time you heard of County Leitrim?
“Exactly. I lived to 40 without ever hearing its name spoken. But the second time I saw it, I stayed; and I say second time, because the first made it clear I had to nip back and grab my belongings.”
Leitrim does that to people. And this particular person was DBC Pierre (the quote is from The Guardian). The Booker Prize-winning author liked what he saw so much, he not only grabbed his belongings, but moved lock, stock and barrel to the place.
One man’s hidden gem is another’s back of the beyonds, of course. And for all of its waterways, castles and poetic landscapes, Leitrim is one of the most off-radar counties in the country. It’s undersold, under-visited and, to outsiders at least, largely unknown.
There are some foodie finds to report, of course. The Oarsman in Carrick-on-Shannon is one of my favourite gastro-pubs, Lough Rynn is still basking in the spotlight of Brian O’Driscoll and Amy Huberman’s wedding, and when I Tweeted for restaurant tips recently, one name came back repeatedly: The Cottage in Jamestown.
Set close to a weir about three miles from Carrick-on-Shannon, this friendly spot has the feel of a real find. The cottage itself is a small, white building with thick stone walls (the waiter needs to wave the card machine about to get reception), and a lovely red half-door opened by thumbing down a latch – a nostalgic and inviting way to enter.
Then there’s the chef/proprietor. Shamzuri Hanifa hails from Malaysia, and there’s an exciting hint of east/west fusion to his subtle blends of Irish and Asian elements.
My rack of lamb, for instance, comes with a coriander crust, spiced shallots and curried gratin potatoes. I order medium-rare, and get a lovely combo of pinkish flesh and lickable gristle. The sautéed lamb’s liver I can take or leave, but overall, the combination of local ingredients (the lamb is from Ciaran Reynolds) and Malaysian notes is intriguing.
Likewise, a well-cooked special of turbot is served on rice noodles, and grilled Halloumi cheese in kataifi pastry features with a vegetable and bean broth.
The best balanced of our starters is an Ardsallagh goats’ cheese mousse with pickled beetroot, treacle crumbs, beetroot coulis and caramelised walnuts. A lovely, fluffy goats’ cheese is laid in creamy whips atop of the sweet-sharp beetroot slices, and garnished with a moreish crunch, courtesy of the various crumbs and nuts. Nice.
There’s also a ‘Taste of Asia’ medley at €14.95. It arrives with a lovely presentation, cleverly weighted without sacrificing the sumptuousness – the highlight of which is a perfectly-cooked piece of Teriyaki seared tuna. It’s pink and velvety inside, a delicious morsel.
The other components are mixed, however. A sesame-coated pork fillet comes with an indulgently sticky sauce, but the chicken noodle broth and spiced cauliflower fritters fail to excite. They’re bland compared to the tangy strings of veg anchoring the plate.
The restaurant itself breaks into two rooms – one larger, lit with magenta tones and tapering into an open kitchen; the other a smaller space built around an (unlit) fireplace. Service is nicely judged throughout, with staff well able to talk through the dishes.
We also open with an impressive selection of breads, including a brown walnut and treacle option, and a doughy white with sundried tomatoes – with two tasty pestos. A Laminated wine card carries a reasonable mix of old and new worlds, with decent French Sauvignon and Merlot available by the glass at €5.95 a pop.
By the time the dessert menu arrives, we – my colleague FC and I – are pretty stuffed, so a tasting plate seems just the ticket at €8.95. We do the old ‘one plate, two spoons’ on it, and get tidy portions of white chocolate mousse, sticky toffee cake and a baked lime tartlet. Splashes of coconut, pickled ginger mousse and lime curd add colour.
The Cottage is a good addition to a county hardly known for its food – it’s Langkawi meets Leitrim, and I respect the fact that Hanifa has created something original, playing to the best of both cultures without descending into a phalanx of fillet steaks (though they’re on the menu too). That’s a hard balance to strike in a city, let alone rural Ireland.
Plus, we’re hearing about Leitrim – a good thing.
Dinner for two with two glasses of wine came to €99.65; tip extra.
Jamestown, Co. Leitrim; 071 962-5933; cottagerestaurant.ie
This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.