To understand what chef Danni Barry is doing in Clenaghan’s, cooking in an old stone building in the wilds of County Armagh, you need to travel back in time to the 1980‘s, and the work of another starry female chef, Catherine Healy, and to an old stone building in the wilds of County Meath.
Back in the 1980’s Catherine Healy cooked at Dunderry Lodge, a converted stone barn, some 26 miles from Dublin. Dunderry, rather like Ms Barry’s restaurant, was in the middle of nowhere.
The eccentric location did Catherine Healy’s work no harm. She won an adoring audience, and she won stars and acclaim, much as Ms Barry has been doing since she opened late in 2017. Three women in Ireland have won Michelin stars, and Catherine Healy was one of them (Danni Barry is another, and Kei Pilz of the Shiro was the third).
The two women, despite the generation that separates them, have much in common as chefs. In particular, they share a finessed culinary fluency that animates the ruddy ingredients they like to work with – gurnard; nettles; grouse; pigeon; crab meat; cabbage; corn; mackerel – into things of great beauty. Give them a sow’s ear, and they make a silk purse.
Like Mrs Healy, Ms Barry has an ability to pare a dish right back to its elemental flavours: sweet roast chicken that tastes of chicken; the spur of roasted bone sauce that enlivens a fillet of hake; a ham broth that foregrounds scallops; toasted coconut to offset soft-centered chocolate tart. This is tactile food, cheffy, but deeply rooted.
But, we can’t live by recollection and theory alone, so let’s get extremely practical for a wee while. Clenaghan’s is in the middle of nowhere, so you need six good reasons to go there. Here goes:
The chocolate orange espresso martini is the best thing you can drink in County Armagh.
The seafood pie is this close to heaven.
At £19 a bottle, the La Grand Chapelain white Bordeaux is the ultimate steal.
Danni Barry’s vanilla rice pudding is better – much better – than your Mum’s rice pudding. Okay, we’ve said it now.
The staff at Cleneghan’s are amongst the finest hospitality professionals we have ever seen at work.
You could eat the entire menu in Clenaghans and still be able to afford to take a cab back home.
Dunderry Lodge was a rustic, converted barn, and Clenaghan’s is a sweet, swaddling tabernacle of stone-walled rooms that, once you have finally found it, you just don’t want to leave. It’s the perfect spot for what Danni Barry is doing right now, which is what Catherine Healy was doing back in the 1980's: cooking some of the finest food being served in the country, in the middle of nowhere.