That the Salthill Hotel has only recently been awarded four star status came as a surprise to me. The lofty foyer and comfortable reception would not be out of place in Kensington. Any weddings or events I have attended there have always been to a very high standard. Overlooking the Promenade, with views of Galway Bay and the Clare Hills, this elegant hotel features an exceptional leisure centre. But the official announcement was granted by Fáilte Ireland, that the Salthill Hotel has achieved the four star status, only on February 12 2015. This accomplishment is testament to the hard work of the staff, coupled with the substantial investment by the Byrne family in the property in the last few years.
I have received quite a few invitations to 'Dine in the Dark' events over the years and have always declined them. I like to see my food, it is a big part of the enjoyment of a meal for me. So when a fat envelope plopped through my letterbox containing an eye mask and an invitation, I was about to decline this one too. Until I mentioned it to my current sidekick and dining partner, Chefess. The Chefess, being younger than me and less set in her ways, was enthusiastic about going, and so I found myself at The Salthill Hotel with various other media types and gastronomes, about to embark on a tasting menu in the stylish surroundings of the hotel’s Prom Restaurant, minus one of our senses.
Armed with our blindfolds, and the information that there was a prize up for grabs for the person who correctly identified most of the dishes, we began our adventure. Cutlery is supplied, but I recommend having a quick feel through the food. There is a childlike fun in exploring the plate with your fingers, feeling the different temperatures and textures and after all, nobody else can see you. First came a plate of three kinds of salmon - smoked, cured and in a confit. There was cucumber, lightly pickled, plenty of dill, and a bracing horseradish aioli and the distinctive curl of a pea shoot.
The next dish I could have sworn to be chicken, but it was rabbit. In my defence the rabbit was farmed and I have only ever eaten wild bunnies before. There were murmurs around the table about bacon, but I was getting more of a chorizo vibe.
Four smooth sorbets were sent to test us next, further complicated by the detection of the coarse crystals of a frozen granita with the scent of pineapple strewn on top. There was a strident note of passionfruit from one sorbet scoop, raspberry from another, unmistakably lemon from a third. The last tasted of dark late summer berries, I guessed blackcurrant, but it was later revealed to be blackberry. Somewhere there was a hint of mint.
A tip off from the Chefess informed me that the fish on the next dish was brill. It came on a fennel, orange, pink grapefruit, and watermelon salad. It was great fun to sniff out the subtleties, who knew the reduction contained cardamon? Then followed a masterfully cooked braised beef cheek wellington, soft pork belly, and roast lamb rump. There was a purée I could not identify, somewhere between turnip and cabbage in flavour, which turned out to be cauliflower. A colour hint would have helped greatly with puzzling that one out.
Dessert was a mysteriously fragrant coconut panna cotta. I couldn't place the second flavour and would never have guessed lemongrass, but I was happy enough using a combination of spoon and fingers to get it to my mouth. Pistachio crumble, physalis compote, and a touch of star anise finished the dish.
Every single item we ate ranged from good to superb. I could not take photos of any of them, of course, but the ever helpful general manager Fiona Killilea supplied me with some. The young chef behind the menu is 30-year-old Oranmore native Jonathan Mannion. A GMIT graduate, he worked his way up the ranks to sous chef in the School House restaurant in Clarenbridge, before moving to be head chef of the Moorings Restaurant in Oranmore at the age of 20. Having joined the team at Salthill as a sous chef in 2012, he took on the role of executive head chef in 2013 and at just 28 years of age, a testament to his talent. He seemed happy to use all his considerable powers of invention to challenge us, sneaking in a range of unusual pairings and flavours and unexpected ingredients, improved only by the exceptional service from charismatic restaurant manager, Salvatore Pernice.
The beauty of eating in the dark is that the chef can overcome the ‘prejudice’ of the diner who sees a dish she does not like and would ordinarily avoid. The theory goes that being temporarily robbed of one’s sight should enhance one’s other senses, including taste, as your brain attempts to compensate.
The evening was made all the sweeter by learning that I was the winner of the competition. Proof, if any were needed, that I am in possession of the finest palate in all the land. Needless to say, I accepted my prize with my usual modesty and good grace.
The Prom has all the attributes you would expect from a good restaurant, great service and delicious food. The Salthill Hotel is on to a winner with this innovative and fun night out. It is perfect to attract groups, families, and companies looking for an alternative dining experience with a competitive edge.
It’s rather a clever idea.