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Ballynahinch Castle

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, Recess, Connemara, Galway, Ireland

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Ballynahinch Castle is in a beautiful riverside setting in Galway, a few miles from the west coast of Ireland, not too far from the town of Connemara. It has a 364 acre estate offering fishing and country walks to residents (and shooting in season), and is nearby several golf courses. The main building dates from 1684 and is more of a stately home, though there was a real castle on this spot prior to the current building dating back round 700 years. There is a pub in the hotel offering simple fare, and a more formal restaurant open in the evenings. There are 40 guest rooms.

The dining room has lovely views over the river and grounds, with a four course menu priced at €60. The wine list had 115 wines listed, ranging in price from €14.50 to €360. Examples were Chakana Malbec 2010 at €32 for a wine that you can find in a shop for around €12, Jean-Paul and Benoit Droin Mont de Milieu Chablis 2009 at €53 for a wine that retails at €24, and Lynch-Bages 2002 at €163 for a wine that will set you back €116 in a shop. A bargain on the list was Antinori Tignanello 1998 at €83 for a wine that will set you back €80 in a shop, and if you have the means then Penfolds Grange 1999 was listed at €360, which is actually below its current retail price of €452. There was no sommelier, and the wine waiter, when I specified the wine I wanted, looked baffled and asked what number it was on the list.  This happened on the second night too; surely they could train up at least one waiter in the basics of wine?

Bread is made twice daily, and comprised a choice of onion rolls, white rolls, brown bread and walnut soda bread. The latter was a little dense, but the onion rolls were pleasant enough (maybe 14/20). A starter consisted of a seafood “medley” of crab, lobster, smoked mackerel and avocado cream, all resting in a cold, and rather tasteless broth. The lobster was fairly tender, the mackerel fine but the avocado was discoloured; grey is never a good look for avocado. The broth seemed fairly pointless, though the actual shellfish was fine; overall as a dish though, this medley had some off notes (12/20). I ate gravadlax made from wild Irish salmon, which was nice enough but a little dry, and the salad elements with it, such as a smear of beetroot glaze, were unremarkable (12/20).

Tomato and red pepper soup was a simple dish but had quite good flavour, and was nicely seasoned (14/20). My Caesar salad had reasonably crisp lettuce and a fresh rather than tinned anchovy, but was hard to get excited about (13/20).  My fillet of Irish beef suffered from being overcooked; I ordered it medium rare but it arrived well-done. I dread to think what a well-done order would look like; the beef itself had good flavour, so this was a pity. This was served with a pleasant reduction of the cooking juices and some strips of courgettes (which were overcooked), a croquette of the beef offal, which should have been crisper on the outside, and carrot purée. There was also a blue cheese purée, which did not add much to the dish (11/20).

Dover sole was cooked in butter and served a garnish of tender bak choi, a cold tomato and lemon. The sole was nicely cooked and had excellent flavour (easily 14/20). It was strange to contrast the accurate cooking of the sole with the overcooking of the beef.  Greek yogurt pannacotta, raspberries and brandy snap with chocolate ice cream was good. The brandy snap was crisp, the raspberries having plenty of flavour (14/20).

Service was attempting to be quite formal, with smartly dressed waiters, but mostly failed to be effective. For example one waiter confidently laid out the relevant knives and forks (a meat knife for my beef, a fish knife for the sole) which we then had to swap around so they were with the correct diner. Wine was only sporadically topped up.

A second dinner featured a smoked wild salmon starter (again, nice rather than striking), while I had scallops with black pudding. The scallops were of good quality, with some natural sweetness, cooked just a fraction longer than I would have chosen but still fine. These were served with foam of the scallop coral, some pancetta and an odd form of black pudding in small pieces which in texture resembled the corn grits that you see in the south of the USA. These were distinctly hard in texture, and added nothing to the dish (12/20).

This was followed by puy lentil soup that was pleasant if a little on the watery side, though properly seasoned (13/20). For the main course, wild salmon was served on a bed of celeriac remoulade and a little fish pie. The celeriac was fine, the salmon properly cooked, but again the salmon was good rather than something with dazzling flavour (14/20). I had pork Wellington, whose pastry was fine, with its good mushroom coating, but the pork itself was seriously dried out (11/20). Again the vegetable cooking was much more certain than the meat, with good beans and sugar snap peas, and a very capable gratin dauphinoise (14/20).

For dessert, a white and dark chocolate dish had a pleasant dark chocolate tart, a coconut mousse that lacked much flavour, and white chocolate jelly (13/20). This was better than tiramisu, which was remarkably lacking in coffee flavour (11/20).

The restaurant seems to me to be missing an opportunity. The produce here is actually good, with chanterelles picked in the grounds, local Irish beef and pigs raised on the property itself. It was nice to see wild salmon on the menu given that there is salmon fishing in the river running through the estate, but after talking to the owner it transpires that relatively few salmon are actually caught locally, so it is not always on the menu, even in season. Still, there was clearly plenty that could be done with the fine local ingredients, but I fear that it needs a significantly better chef than the current incumbent, Xin Sun, who has been cooking here for many years. There is a tendency at present to add one more garnish than the dishes really need, and there was inconsistent preparation and cooking. One overcooked meat dish is unfortunate, two smacks of carelessness.

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