I love to travel, to wander the world in search of new experiences and great food, but sometimes the best treats of all are on my own doorstep. This weekend is one of those lovely summer weekends in Duncannon. My Big Green Egg has been on since 6 am this Sunday morning and Pulled Pork and Beer Can Chicken are cooking away as I write. I’m preparing a barbecue for 12 of our family to celebrate my Mum’s birthday and my own which we both shared on 18th July and I’m taking a short break to reflect on the moment and the place.
As I sit here, gazing out at the expanse of still water and the view down to Hook Head, I’m reminded of what a beautiful country Ireland is and how privileged I am to come from the south east corner of this island. I woke at 4 am this morning and, in the early morning light, a row of rooks had lined up on the telegraph wires outside my dormer window for a natter. A faint tinge of pink was already beginning to seep into the sky, and I acknowledged, with gratitude, the joy of living sufficiently far north of the equator to savour these long days and bright early mornings of birdsong and racket. Sometimes the true value of travel is appreciating the place to which we return.
This is is my second weekend in a row in Duncannon. Last weekend I visited my Mum in Wexford to mark the anniversary of my Dad’s passing 8 years ago and she came down with me for the night. We got a cancellation booking at Aldridge Lodge and dropped in for Saturday evening dinner which turned into an early celebration of our birthdays.
Today is exactly 9 years since my first visit to Aldridge. Back in 2005 I had heard rumours locally that Billy Whitty and his partner Joanne Harding were opening a new restaurant and guest house. I knew Billy’s reputation from Horetown House and in late May that year, on one of our Sunday walks, we wandered out past the mobile home park up the the road towards Hook Head to investigate. We peered through the windows of the unfinished house and knocked on the door to make a provisional booking to celebrate a significant birthday.
That occasion in July 2005, shortly after Aldridge opened its doors, turned out to be the last big family get together attended by my whole family including my beloved Dad. We had a raucous celebration, waking the unfortunate German tourists in the room above with our sing song. (Sorry lovely tourists). The memories of that night, and the sunlit barbecue in our back garden the next day, are with me still. Even then it was clear that Aldridge Lodge was set to be a special place offering exceptional food and hospitality.
Since then the restaurant is where we have celebrated every important family event – my Mum’s 80th birthday, our family meal before Claire and Mike’s Wedding, our grandson Dermot’s first outing to an Irish restaurant, countless birthdays and Mother’s Days and New Year’s Eves. It is where Shane told Derry that he and Shan had decided to name their unborn son after him. It’s where we go once in a while on the spur of the moment when there’s no food in the fridge and, if we are lucky, Billy and Joanne can squeeze us in for a table.
While our lives have changed with the passing of the years, gaining new family members and losing others precious to us, Billy and Joanne have gone on to build the excellence and the reputation of their guest house and restaurant. They’ve held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2007 and no year goes by without them picking up another award for their food and their service, most recently Best Chef in Leinster at the Irish Restaurant Awards. Along the way, they’ve had a baby daughter Caitlin, born completely unexpectedly on 13th April 2012, my son Shane’s birthday. And when I say “completely unexpectedly”, I mean just that. Joanne was making beds in the guesthouse and contemplating a pile of ironing when she went into labour not realising she was pregnant. Like everything else in life, she took the experience in her stride with characteristic aplomb and she and Billy embraced Caitlin with love into their busy lives.
And they work so hard. It is a relatively small operation and Billy is always in the kitchen, controlling every detail of every dish that comes to the table. Joanne is front of house, greeting each new arrival with a warm smile, her engaging personality making you feel more like a guest than a customer. Between them and their loyal team, every detail is attended to. Despite the friendly and relaxed atmosphere, they pay close attention to small details in the laying of the table and the service from the moment you arrive until you are waved off from the front door with a smile and a flurry of good wishes.
And the food, oh the food. It delivers. It excels every time..
Take our impromptu dinner last week for instance.
Mum and I were seated at the window with a view out towards Duncannon on one of those peachy summer evenings when the light set the fields aglow. This is my favourite table in the dining room which is a light, airy, modern space on two levels, walls decorated with local artwork. We were served a little cup of home made red pepper soup while we made our choices. A selection of homemade breads was brought to our table along with our drinks. Out in the reception room other guests were arriving and choosing from the menu over pre-dinner drinks.
I opted for a starter of Scallops with Black Pudding Bread Toast and Red Onion Marmalade.
Mum had a Crab Cocktail but this was no ordinary seafood cocktail. It was a work of art. I’m not surprised that Billy won Seafood Chef of the Year at the 2013 Georgina Campbell Awards. His creations use only the best of locally caught produce, including lobster from his Dad’s lobster pots so you can expect the zinging fresh taste of the sea to leap off the plate.
My Mum waxed lyrical about her main course of Pan-Fried Fillet of Kilmore Monkfish with Samphire, Wild Herbs, De-hydrated Tomato and a Fennel Cream.
I opted for the main course special which was a slow-cooked Short-rib of Beef served with clams. Short-rib is a tricky cut to present well and the combination of long slow cooking and the unusual pairing with clams elevated this dish above the ordinary. Seasonal vegetables and chips were served on the side.
We didn’t think we would have room for dessert but we couldn’t resist sharing a Wexford Strawberry Mess. This was almost too pretty to eat but we ate it anyway and it tasted as good as it looked. You can’t beat Wexford strawberries for flavour.
Then Joanne surprised us with an early birthday treat – two perfect little tiramisu just for us.
The wine list is short and offers a good value selection of interesting wines by the glass, half litre and bottle. I chose a half litre of a Spanish white wine – Macabeo Vina Garria – and then asked for a bottle of red to be opened so that I could have a glass with the short-rib. Joanne suggested La Bascula Catalan Eagle from Tindal Wines.
This full-bodied spicy red made from Garnacha, Carinena and Syrah grapes worked beautifully with the rich beef. Joanne kindly provided a wine gift bag when we were leaving so that we could take the rest of it away with us. She also organised a local taxi so that I could leave the car and collect it the following morning. Sated, Mum and I chugged off in a 16 seater people carrier for the 5 minute journey home, my Mum clutching my bottle of wine.
Our total bill, including wines and before discretionary service came to €127.75. The dinner menu itself is €38.50. The quality, presentation and value of this food stood comparison to the best meals I’ve had in Ireland and abroad in recent years. Even better value is to be had mid-week and on Sunday evenings when a set tasting menu is served for €28.50.
The restaurant is open Wednesdays to Sundays throughout the year except for a few weeks in January. They also have lovely bedrooms available above the dining room for those who make a long distance trek for their dinner. On Sunday morning when I walked up from the village to collect my car, Joanne was there, cheery as always and offering me coffee as she served breakfast to her guests. They work hard that pair.
Over the past nine years Joanne and Billy have given me some insight into the life of restauranteurs. It is a tough and demanding profession that rewards sustained effort and resilience in face of setbacks. You would want to love it to live that life. There must have been rough times since they opened in the heady days of the Celtic Tiger but they have weathered the recession and this summer Joanne says “every night feels like Saturday.” Nine years on I think of them as friends and an integral part of our Duncannon life. Next year I will be having another significant birthday to coincide with the 10th anniversary of their opening. No prizes for guessing where we will want to celebrate.
Aldridge Lodge Restaurant & Guesthouse