Settled in happy expectation of a great breakfast at MacNean House in Blacklion, a small village in County Cavan, Ireland, I'm soon disconcerted. The waitress brings over my porridge and – oh, this is awkward. Despite the early hour, there's the distinct aroma of strong liquor about her.
It's when she leaves and the smell lingers that I sniff my bowl, then check the menu. The porridge is laced with Irish Mist, the dish a play on the fine old Irish tradition of adding warming whiskey to morning oats for workers braving the potato fields in the depths of Ireland's damp winter. Oh well, when in Ireland …
And especially when at MacNean House, where there's naught to do but give in to the experience. After all, this is destination dining in the true sense. While the village of Blacklion is pretty enough and the area around it blessed with some lovely natural attractions, many visitors come to this place, 113 kilometres north-west of Dublin and right on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, specifically to dine at MacNean House. It takes a bit to get here, so it seems churlish to at least not try everything – even though there's so much of it. You do not leave MacNean House hungry.
MacNean House is home to chef Neven Maguire. And indeed, it's home in the true sense. His parents opened MacNean Bistro on the site in 1989 and young Neven began cooking there, alongside his eight brothers and sisters, legend has it, before he was in his teens. He had real flair and love for it though, and, lucky for him, there was a cooking school 20 kilometres away at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. At 16 he enrolled, then travelled the world, clocking up Michelin-starred experiences in a slew of top restaurants and more than a modicum of celebrity – the affable chef has since starred in TV shows, written for newspapers and published cookbooks.
In 2001, he returned home to Blacklion and in 2007 reopened the site as MacNean House & Restaurant, and, with wife Amelda, set about creating something very special indeed that had Irish food critic Georgina Campbell declaring Maguire "a national treasure" and others declaring MacNean House a "phenomenon".
Inhabiting a slice of Georgian row on Blacklion's quaint, traditional, unassuming main street, in addition to the restaurant, MacNean House comprises a bar (for guests only), cooking school, a kitchen garden and guesthouse accommodation, which though comfortable and cosy, is not overly spacious. But then, you only need it to sleep off your food coma and it meets that purpose well.
The restaurant, a simply elegant affair, takes two sittings a night. I'm in the first. I'm a little (well, a lot) jet lagged, but can't resist settling in for Maguire's "signature" nine-course tasting menu (there is a shorter option). The chef him self isn't on the premises – when he is he likes to do the rounds of the restaurant and say hello to everyone. To make up for it, there's a "surprise starter" of curry popcorn (surprisingly delicious) and two exquisite little canapes. There's also a plate of assorted house-made breads, including a mini cranberry loaf, a caramelised onion bread and a cheesy swirl, plus the requisite Irish soda and wheaten breads. They're accompanied by truffle-infused Irish butter, good enough to eat on its own. It is wise to resist the charms of all this, given what's to come.
I am not wise, especially in the face of the jet lag. I hoe in. I still manage to find room (and to keep my eyes open long enough) to partake of everything, helped by the relaxed approach here. Though the dining room (often booked out 12 months in advance) will need to reset and go again for the second sitting, there's no sense of rushing the courses from the skilled, friendly staff.
And what courses: a sublime parade of local quality produce, such as pork, lamb, crab, trout, oysters, legumes and berries, each presented exquisitely on unique crockery, the dishware artfully appropriate. I marvel at the white, ruffled porcelain leaf in which my silky lobster ravioli comes. Then a passionfruit and pineapple palate cleanser arrives in a delicate double glass tea bowl. "Neven's got a thing for plates and bowls," my waiter says. "He picks them up all over the world. You should see the store room."
By the time I've partaken of artisan Irish cheeses, a pre-dessert, dessert and petit fours, I'm keen to curl up in the store room. I'm not sure I can make it up stairs to my room. Thankfully, I do, and manage a "you're in for a treat" smile for the other excited guests I pass in the hallway as they make their way to the second sitting.
I flop into my luxurious bed, the food coma hitting instantly and the next thing I know, I am wide awake early, thanks to that jet lag, and the first person down to breakfast. Amazing what the stomach can take.
This time, however, I hold back on the bread, butter and only sample that delicious Irish Mist-laced porridge, leaving room for MacNean House's famous poached eggs on brioche.
"Be sure and check out the Burren," house manager Una says cheerily as she helps me get my bag into my car. "Lovely day for a walk after breakfast."
In normal circumstances, I'd have to walk back to Dublin to offset my MacNean House feasting. Lucky then, that calories don't count when you're on holiday.
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MacNean House & Restaurant is to the North of County Cavan. It is 20 minutes from Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and 45 minutes from both Cavan and Sligo town. From Dublin take the N3 for Cavan, then taking Cavan bypass, continue towards Enniskillen.
MacNean House & Restaurant; Blacklion, County Cavan; +353 71 985 3022; macneanrestaurant.com.
Rooms from €67 ($95) a person twin share, including breakfast.
There are two dinner options at MacNean Restaurant: the five-course costs €72 a person and the nine-course "prestige tasting menu" €87 a person, or with matched wine, €132 a person. Cookery school courses start at €160 a person. See macneanrestaurant.com.
Blacklion is on the shores of Lower and Upper Lough MacNean, near the border with Fermanagh. The town of Belcoo in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland is separated from Blacklion by a bridge, which was blown up during the Irish Troubles.
Nearby is a beautiful nine-hole golf course, the Cavan Way, which is a 26-kilometre well-marked walk taking hikers into the mountains of West Cavan, and the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. See cavan.ie/blacklion.
The writer was a guest of MacNean House & Restaurant and Tourism Ireland.