It’s a dark, squelchy evening.
We’re driving into the depths of County Wicklow, with roads getting rougher by the minute. Every now and then, we turn a corner to be swallowed up by a spectral pocket of fog. Between Rathdrum and Macreddin Village, a fox bolts from the hedgerows. Its eyes shine like jewels.
It’s an apt way to arrive at The Strawberry Tree. Evan Doyle’s masterpiece is the only certified organic restaurant in Ireland. Its menu changes daily as it draws from the fields, lanes, farms and forests around the Brooklodge Hotel. It uses natural ingredients seasonally, and forbids “conventional foods” from the kitchen.
It’s both at the heart of Wicklow’s wilderness, and wild at heart.
The thing is, ‘organic’ isn’t as pure a concept as it once was. Like decking, frappucinos or holiday homes in Bulgaria, it tends to conjure up images of Celtic Tiger excess and embarrassment. Most of us understand that pesticide-free and ethically produced food is both desirable and healthy, but our experience with organic products has unfortunately led us to regard it as an expensive (and dubious) luxury.
This has to be problematic for The Strawberry Tree. Its four-course dinner and six-course tasting menu are priced at €65pp; its cheapest bottle of wine is €31. The salon-style dining rooms are deeply decadent too, with velvet wallpaper, black-as-chrome ceilings and marble-effect carpets suggesting a gilded lily.
Rest assured, however, that this is far more than an extravagance.
The restaurant is 25 years old. It predates our Celtic Tiger shenanigans, and its commitment to slow food is astonishing. Walking through the hotel, we pass countless jars and bottles filled with preserves, chutneys, berries and potions like sloe gin and oak-leaf wine. Doyle runs wild food masterclasses, and co-wrote ‘Wild Food’, a book on gathering, preparing and cooking wild foods.
The Strawberry Tree could have rebranded during the recession, in other words. But it stuck to its guns, persisting with quality produce and methods that simply do not come cheap. It’s a heartfelt hymn to the Wicklow hedgerows.
Opting for the four-course menu, our starters include smoked wild venison (above) and a fillet of grilled wild plaice, the latter served with smoked chilli aioli and a pickled wild marsh samphire salad. The venison is gorgeously earthy, its salty tang and leathery richness offset by a clutch of bright leaves and squishy oyster mushrooms.
Likewise, the soft warmth of the plaice contrasts sweetly with the cold, tart samphire.
An icy passion fruit Prosecco sorbet and mushroom soup follow. The sorbet is a refreshing palate cleanser – although the Prosecco definitely dominates – and the soup is surprisingly light, if a little under-seasoned for our tastes.
I go with the whole roast pheasant (above) as a main. From Ballinacor Estate, it’s served with rooty little bullets of celeriac and a shallot puree, though the bird itself is tough work. Pheasant is obviously a lean and gamey bird, and mine comes with a crispy skin and moist meat, but it’s just too chewy to be enjoyable.
L’s fillet steak (above) presents no such issues, with charred and tangy edges giving way to tender, rose-petal pink flesh. It reinforces our sense that produce is always first-rate at The Strawberry Tree, from meats and fish right down to individual servings of broccoli, breads, garlic butter, ultra-fresh leaves and wild garlic pesto.
On the downside, I just don’t like the room. It’s essential for a restaurant to get the lighting right, and this one is simply too dark. Given the decor’s brushes with bling – not to mention mood music that ranges from Enya to the soundtrack from Gladiator during our visit – the experience can feel over-egged at times.
On balance, however, there’s more than enough quality and passion on show in the food, cooking and service to steer verdicts in Doyle’s favour. The Brooklodge remains a classic bolthole for foodies, there are plenty of gluten-free options, and the wine list includes an imaginative and resourceful list of organic bottles.
We finish with a dark chocolate marquise and a lemon tart (above). The tart’s gently blow-torched glaze cracks sweetly to reveal the sumptuousness within.
Dinner for two with two glasses of wine came to €153.90. Tip extra.
Brooklodge Hotel & Macreddin Village, Aughrim, Co. Wicklow; 0402 36444; brooklodge.com. This Strawberry Tree review originally ran in The Irish Examiner.