“Because Mary doesn't do fish, I always have fish when I eat out”, said the crusty guy with the loud crusty accent to his crusty friend.
The crusty man was in luck. He was ordering fish in The Ballymore Inn, specifically the day's dish of hake with spinach and salsify. I was having the same, and I don't expect to have a better fish dish anytime in 2015.
The hake was translucently white, and it was as sweet as only the freshest fish can be. The spinach and salsify added notes of chlorophyll and starch, whilst a rich tomato sauce was underpinned with the sweetness of fennel.
But it wasn't just the excellence of the ingredients that made the dish shine. The dish was a perfect example of how Georgina O'Sullivan, chef-proprietor of the Ballymore Inn, cooks.
The dish was focussed.
Each element was there for a purpose and each element was both precisely defined and precisely executed. The flavours fit together, and then married. This is a form of cooking so precisely wrought that it creates a congress of ingredients on the plate: there is a “coming together” of the different elements.
Not many cooks can actually do that. Mrs O'Sullivan's food has always fascinated me because of her ability to unify all the parts of a dish: other cooks want to shine as a soloist, but she wants to conduct a choir. When a dish is finished, she wants one sound out of many notes, she wants harmony, above all.
Paul Rankin can do that, and the late Catherine Healy could achieve it. Aine Maguire can do it, and Derek Creagh can do it. To cook with that sort of focus requires a chef to sublimate themselves. You need a strange sense of humility, and an almost weird sense of reverence and respect. You need to be a student, a seeker.
Back in 1998, not long after Georgina and Barry O'Sullivan opened their doors, we wrote that, “What works here is the fact that this food is so completely and comprehensively understood: Georgina O'Sullivan knows exactly how to achieve what she want to achieve.”
Having that skill might force others to ossify, to stay safe and thereby stay stuck, but a starter dish of flatbreads and hummus with pomegranate shows that in 2015 Mrs O'Sullivan can do the Ottolenghi every bit as well as Ottolenghi. Once again, this element of the cooking was evident back in 1998, and we wrote: “She has taken apart the favourite foods of today and reimagined them in her own style, a considerable culinary achievement.”
That “considerable culinary achievement” is the day-to-day business of The Ballymore Inn, and the achievement is made all the greater by the modesty and understatement of everything: the charm of the staff, the comfort of the room – one of the best rooms in Ireland – the assurance and annotation of the wine list. Best of all, there is a calmness that comes with eating the beautiful food cooked here, the knowledge that you have happened upon something singular, a place where, as we wrote back then, “we find that most precious thing: the food we love to eat.”
Main Street, Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare www.ballymoreinn.com Tel: (045) 864585