Eating Out: Cafe Merlot in Enniskillen an underground delight
6 Church Street,
HEY, Fermanagh’s a bit posh, isn’t it? Bit like Cheshire, but with fewer footballers.
I’ve been there before, of course. Or, rather, I’ve been through it. I wasn’t allowed to stop. They even kept all the lights on green so I could pass through like some unwanted dignitary straight from Tyrone to Leitrim.
I managed to blag a temporary visa this time though, a three-hour pass which enabled my wife and I to eat at Café Merlot, a place I’ve been meaning to go to for ages now.
That was just enough time: a couple of hours for the meal and an hour to negotiate Enniskillen’s one-way system.
The restaurant sits in an old wine cellar below the beautiful Blake’s of The Hollow pub, a smashing place to enjoy a drink either before or after your meal.
There’s no great fanfare about the entrance, which is easy to miss. Narrow steps take you down from the street, although the rear entrance takes you straight in from ground level, like an Escher drawing.
The walls are decorated with paintings of local scenes, and the ceiling is vaulted. Despite the cream décor, there’s a darkness about the place, but it feels intimate and atmospheric rather than gloomy, as if you’ve stumbled across a lovely secret.
It’s hard to know where to start with Café Merlot, but one thing that’s definitely worth mentioning is its fantastic value. That’s not to say the prices are simply low: it’s because the food is beautiful – and yet you only pay a pound or two more than you would for very ordinary food elsewhere.
We went for the pre-theatre offer of two courses for £18.95, sharing one starter and one pudding between us, because everything looked so good we didn’t want to miss out.
Having decided on this approach, it made sense to have the antipasti platter to begin with, and then the assiette to follow the main. I don’t think we could have chosen better.
The starter platter was a lovely mix of offerings. The pork terrine was meaty and full of flavour, but done with a delicate touch, while the Cashel Blue salad balanced sweet and savoury expertly. Best, though, was the carrot and ginger soup, which was a real arpeggio of notes running from low to high and back again.
In each case, there was enough to satisfy and leave you wanting more at the same time.
We both went for fish for our main courses. I’ve never had turbot before, and I now think I’ve been missing out for years. It was both rich and light, and perfectly matched by a citrussy buerre blanc which gave the dish a lovely, sharp ping.
The rosti could maybe have been a touch crispier, but it was, nevertheless, full of flavour.
The hake was cooked to perfection. It flaked beautifully, was well-seasoned and came in a sauce that was delicate, but strong enough to stand up to the meatiness of the fish.
Likewise with the pepperade, which gave the dish a sweetness to balance the rest of the flavours.
Again, we made the right choice to share the assiette of puddings. The chocolate pannacotta was light and creamy and sweet, while the poached pear had the right combination of soft and firm, giving both flavour and texture.
We fought over the mango sorbet, going spoon for spoon for its delicious, singing sharpness.
Attention to detail, desire for perfection, wonderful ingredients. This was everything a good meal should be.
If Fermanagh will let a commoner like me in again, I’ll be heading straight back here.
:: The bill (prices for two, pre-theatre menu, any two courses for £18.95 per person)
Platter of pork terrine, carrot and ginger soup, and Cashel Blue salad
Roast fillet of hake, pepperade, asparagus
Roast fillet of turbot, rosti potato, Dublin Bay prawns, lemon buerre blanc (£4.00 supplement)
Side order of sweet potato fries - £4.50
Assiette of chocolate pannacotta, poached pear, mango sorbet
Glass, Sauvignon Blanc - £4.25