The zen air that hangs over the village of Cong flourishes into one of magnificence at Ashford Castle. A palatial home to restaurants like the George V Dining Room, Cullen's at the Dungeon, and the Connaught Room for afternoon tea, the Castle has oodles of culinary opulence to attract fond diners. However, its grounds flaunt the sweetheart among all its eating havens—Cullen's at the Cottage.
Cullen's is the only Ashford restaurant that isn't discriminating of dress code. The thatched roof and lack of exterior ornamentation set its casual tone, which carries forward indoors, although the restaurant itself is elegant. The Cottage used to be Cong Cinema (during the era of the Hollywood film The Quiet Man). Now, its impressive menu stars both Irish and global classics prepared not just to please but also to charm. The smoked haddock soup is an inventive chowder: soft baby onion, chewy bacon, sweetcorn and smoked haddock swim in a thick, comforting broth. It's served with "Ashford brown bread", which is great to mop up remnants of the soup with.
The wine list is selective instead of lengthy, a fact we appreciated, especially since it gave us the chance to try strawberry wine for the first time. Móinéir, listed on the menu for €7.50 a glass and €40 a bottle, is produced in Wicklow. "Lovingly crafted in the Garden of Ireland, Móinéir wines are luxurious artisan fruit wines made from 100% Irish fruit, in Ireland's first fruit winery, Wicklow Way Wines," the winery claims. Each bottle uses 150 fresh strawberries, our server informed us.
Móinéir Strawberry Wine has multiple tasting notes that the palate picks up one after the other. A sip feels like light, dry strawberry cider at first, chardonnay second, and very diluted bourbon at the end. It's served over ice, in a special glass that resembles a whiskey tumbler. Each sip is crisp with a slightly musky, elegant finish.
We were pleased to have picked the wine since nothing else could have seemingly gone better with our seared scallops. Each chunk of the main is precariously placed on a hot basalt stone that keeps the mollusc warm till you work through it at leisure. The scallops are only gently seared and come with grapefruit jelly and expertly sautéed vegetables.
We ended our meal with a request to personally compliment the chef. We're not sure whether it was the food, wine, service or a combination of all three, but we left feeling treated like royalty and that we had just had the most exquisite meal of our lives. It definitely wasn't the grandeur of the castle, nor was it the poshness of the environment that had us enamoured. It was how the staff at Cullen's made us feel with their warm energy and attention to detail. Visit when you have two or more hours to spend on dinner. This place clearly believes in slow seduction; it's not for those who like to skip foreplay.