This baby-faced young man with a rosy complexion, round blue eyes, and easy smile doesn't look old enough to heft a pint of Guinness, much less run a gourmet restaurant.
Just over the border of Northern Ireland, there's an Irish police checkpoint in force. Two policemen (or Gardai Siochana, as they are known here) stand by most of the day and night, glancing at the cars passing through this village of Blacklion, in County Cavan. Occasionally, since the demise of the I.R.A. cease fire, they will stop the odd truck or car, on its way to neighboring Sligo - in the Republic, or Enniskillen, twelve miles away in the North.
But mostly, they just smile and wave at the motorists, many of whom they know, and many of whom are trekking to this tiny border town with a population just over 500, to sample the fare of 23-year-old star chef Neven Maguire.
This baby-faced young man with a rosy complexion, round blue eyes, and easy smile; doesn't look old enough to heft a pint of Guinness, much less run a gourmet restaurant. But that's exactly what Neven -- with the help of his father Joe, his mother Vera, and to a lesser extent, his four brothers and sisters -- accomplishes with great aplomb at the MacNean House and Bistro.
His list of awards sounds like something out of a tourist guide: a 1993 Mouton Cadet Sunday Lunch Winner, the Egon Ronay Dessert of the Year award in 1994, the 1995 Euro-Toque Young Chef of the Year, and in 1996 a finalist for the Wedgwood Dessert of the Year.
Who is this person?
"No, I wouldn't say that ego is a problem," laughs Neven, without a trace of irony. Embarrassed, he explains "It wasn't the way I was brought up." In fact, like every good Irish boy, he credits his mother Vera, who serves as his quasi sous-chef, for his interest and subsequent success in the gourmet industry. Father Joe handles the business side of the pretty 35-seater, ordering the local organic produce, fish, fowl and meat that the restaurant serves almost exclusively. Two Maguire sisters, provide the front-of-house staff, while two younger brothers peel the potatoes, "and do just about everything else that Mum and I can't get to," says Neven.
A converted sitting room, the restaurant's dining room -- with its rose ceiling, blue carpeting and pink-and white-covered tables -- is becoming famous all over Ireland and Europe, thanks to laudatory press coverage, including a pictorial spread in the premier newspaper, the Irish Times.
But the draw at this culinary hotspot is not just the baby-faced chef, but his startlingly offbeat fare. Where else can one find a roast rump of kangaroo on brown lentils and rosti potatoes served over a confit of tomato with basil sauce, or a saddle of hare stuffed with a chicken and pesto mousse on a parsnip puree with rosemary jus, or for that matter a roast wood pigeon with a perfume of cepes and white truffle oil?
The Irish, have never been known for their sophisticated palate, but all that is changing now, insists Neven and Vera. "It's just starting," says Vera, "but we're way ahead of the English chefs." The Irish people are now "absorbed in food -- they discuss it now in a way that never happened before. Dining out is now a social event."
Asked if some of their patrons are surprised by such delicacies, as the peppered saddle of venison served with fried cabbage and in a bitter chocolate sauce, Neven shrugged his shoulders, and deferred politely to his mother. "It's a fine line between educating your customers and accommodating their expectations," she says delicately. "They come here for something different. Although, once we had some customers walk out. They looked at the menu and thought we were playing a joke on 'em."
Surrounded by sheep, the sparkling Lough MacNean, stone fences and vast expanses of rolling green fields, some may find the County Cavan location remote. The Maguires, however, see it as good fortune.
Blacklion is the gateway to the rural West of Ireland, Vera points out, while being close enough to the more metropolitan towns of Derry and Belfast. "It's an advantage," she insists. "We get our geese, guinea hen, pigeon, quail and duck from Thornhill, just down the road. Twelve miles away is Eden Plants, where we get the organic produce. All the fish is from the West. The mushrooms are from the Boring Forest." "The ostrich and kangaroo were flown in, though," Neven acknowledged. "The wild ostrich got too expensive. A pound of ostrich went for fifteen pounds!"
On a recent Sunday lunch, the tiny dining room hummed with the quiet conversations of couples and families, on a splurge after Mass. As bustling as any French bistro with a dedicated following of gourmands, the MacNean regulars crowded in, happy to spend the 14 pounds (about $22) on the five course lunch.
A spray of fresh flowers decorated every table, and the selection of four types of house-made bread; was accompanied by a pot of sweet butter with a single leaf of sorrel pressed on top. Perhaps inspired by his idol Gordon Ramsay (of London's Aubergine and L'Oranger), Neven's dishes emphasized height: the crispy, meltingly sweet pillows of deep-fried sole "tempura" served as the foundation for a towering pile of crispy fried leeks. Tiny, emerald diamonds of chopped Italian parsley dotted the red pepper coulis, floating alongside petals of edible purple and yellow nasturtiums. An entree of crispy Thornhill duckling, was braced by a colorful pink peppercorn gravy, and was accompanied by a selection of vegetables: cauliflower in cream sauce, mashed carrots, parsnips and celery, colcannon, and naturally potatoes, served boiled with green onions or fried.
But the pièce de resistance was Neven's dessert: the MacNean chocolate assiette with passion fruit sorbet, a creation that garnered his finalist standing in the Wedgwood Dessert of the Year recently.
Pastry is Neven's self-taught passion, and, like all the stocks, breads and even petit fours served at the MacNean, the sorbets and ice creams are house-made. "It looked like the Book of Kells," Neven said of the his lighter-than-air chocolate masterpiece. And with that refreshing modesty for which the Irish are famous, he added under his breath, "I can only hope it didn't taste like it."... Read more.