Eating Out: Arnold's Hotel in Dunfanaghy left us feeling caught between the tides
00 353 74 913 6208
THERE’S a stretch on the road between Derry and Dunfanaghy where the atmosphere changes. You leave the suburban normality of Letterkenny behind. The road narrows, the grip on the steering wheel tightens without you even realising. As you drive through the mountain gap, the grey clouds shift closer. Stern slabs of rock push aside the mean grasses that cling where they can.
And then, before you know it, you pass through cheery Creeslough and the bobbing boats of Portnablagh and into Dunfanaghy.
The three of us, plus toddler, were making the most of what remained of Summer with a trip into Donegal. It wasn’t sunny, but it wasn’t raining either, and it was warm enough to choose between a coat and a jumper.
After a short walk, we headed for lunch. We never go anywhere without knowing where we’re going to eat. I pretend it’s out of concern for my little daughter, but it’s really about my stomach and no-one else’s.
I’d booked a table at Arnold’s by email earlier in the week. I’d tried to book by phone, but there seemed to be some fault with the recorded message. I followed the instructions, but every time I pressed one, for the restaurant, I was returned to the original menu. The confirmation I received stated we would be seated in the bistro. I didn’t give it a second thought until we were shown into a rather cold room adjacent to the inviting and comfortable bar.
The hotel website stated that Arnold’s had recently undergone extensive refurbishment, and that the restaurant offered a stylish and contemporary dining experience overlooking Sheephaven Bay. I knew we weren’t going to be seated in the restaurant, but I had been expecting something more than this room, which felt a little devoid of character, notwithstanding the attractive artwork on the wall.
We were surprised at the menu. It seemed a touch bland compared to the a la carte menu we saw online. Again, I wasn’t expecting the a la carte, but I thought we might get something more akin to it. It wasn’t until I asked if there was anything else that we were told about the specials – Sunday roasts of lamb, turkey, and ham. Two of us went for those, while my daughter had the sausage and mash and I ordered the chowder with a side of skinny fries.
The roast dinners arrived ready plated, and fully plated, too. There was no quibble about the size of the portions. The thick slices of lamb were soft and tender, although lacked a little flavour. The turkey and ham (we ordered a mix of the two) were pretty good. The ham was salty and melted in the mouth. The turkey, while maybe slightly dry, carried a good flavour. The roast potato was a bit hard on the inside and a bit soft on the outside.
The vegetables – carrots and cabbage – were tasty, and still had a bit of crunch. The mash was terrific – soft, buttery, creamy, and moreish.
Apart from needing to be a bit thicker, my chowder was very good. It was creamy and indulgent, and absolutely packed with a variety of fish, the salmon being especially fine. Good, skin-on, skinny fries, too.
We didn’t stay for pudding, choosing instead to wander through the village. As I paid the bill, I noticed that the service had changed. (This is something I’m used to: people are always happier to see me leaving than arriving). Whereas earlier it had been uncertain and distracted, now it was thoroughly warm and friendly, with the young waiter asking about our plans and telling us some fascinating facts about the sea fog that sporadically enveloped the area.
The high street was beginning to bustle, and we sensed a place in transition, with stylish shops, contemporary cafes, and vintage stores making their presence felt alongside the more traditional outlets.
At the quayside the air felt still and we looked over the unstirring water of the bay and watched horses being walked through the shallows.
I think we’d caught Arnold’s in a similar still point in transition. Another time of day, maybe another month or two, and a decent meal would be an excellent meal.
Seafood chowder €8.25
Child’s sausage, mash, and beans €5.75
Donegal roast lamb €13.95
Roast turkey and ham €13.95
Skinny fries €4.10
Diet Coke €2.60
Total: €48.60 (£43.65)