The quiet air that hangs over the village of Cong flourishes into one of quiet magnificence at Ashford Castle. Home to dining rooms set up by the Guinness family—like the George V Dining Room, Cullen's at the Dungeon, and the Connaught Room—the Castle uses its palatial grounds and culinary opulence as primary modes of seduction. The 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). It now has a menu starring both Irish and global classics. 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" to mop up remnants of the soup with.
The wine list is selective instead of lengthy, a fact we appreciate, especially since it gives 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 we distinctly manage to pick up one after the other. The first sip feels like light, dry strawberry cider, the second like chardonnay, and the last like very diluted bourbon. It's served over ice, in a special glass that resembles a whiskey tumbler. Each sip is crisp with an elegant, musky finish.
No other drink could have seemingly gone better with the seared scallops, which are prepared to look like they might be at sea. Each chunk of the main is placed precariously on a hot basalt stone. This keeps the mollusc warm as we work through it at leisure. The scallops are only gently seared; they come with grapefruit jelly and expertly sautéed vegetables.
We end our meal with a request to personally compliment the chef. We're not sure whether it's the food, wine, service or a combination of all three, but leave feeling treated tenderly. We decide it must be the attention to detail and warm energy that the staff at Cullen's are so adept at. Visit only when you have two or more hours to spend on dinner. This place is not for those who like to skip foreplay.