Clonegal, County Carlow, population 280, isn’t at first glance the most obvious place to come across one of Ireland’s finest restaurants. “You might say we’re in the middle of nowhere,” laughs co-proprietor and host Stephanie Stone. “But we’re close to the borders of Counties Wicklow and Wexford. Towns like Enniscorthy and Gorey aren’t too far away and Dublin is handy enough to get to.” That in part explains why it’s impossible to get a table on Friday or Saturday nights at Sha-Roe Bistro without booking. That, plus great food, atmosphere and craic.
Much of the food, as you’d expect in this green rural location, is locally sourced. Fish is from Seatrade in Dunmore East, County Waterford. Carlow Cheese is another, even more local, source: “Owner Elizabeth Bradley is just up the road from Fenagh!” Stephanie’s husband Henry, originally from Arklow, is head chef and self explanatory as this may sound, actually does cook what’s on your plate, a rarity in this golden age of named chefs. He was chef at Marlfield House near Gorey for seven years. That’s where the couple met. “I love Marlfield!” enthuses Stephanie. “It’s like entering a different world and all your worries flying off your shoulder. We were there last weekend for a family celebration.”
Named after the village where Stephanie was brought up, Sha-Roe occupies the ground floor of an elegant Georgian end of terrace. To the side is the entrance to historic Huntington Castle and opposite flows the River Derry. What’s not to like? Orders are taken in the quiet sitting room on one side of the fanlit entrance hall. The lively restaurant occupies the room on the opposite side of the hall. “We’ve 32 covers and are serving 54 customers this evening,” she confirms. The place is buzzing. A fire roars in the massive inglenook fireplace and conversations sparkle like the wine. Candles and artwork are set in rugged stone niches. Tables are simply laid with stone mustard jars of fresh flowers.
Henry is renowned for taking seasonal country cooking to a whole new level. Sharper, more refined, make that much more refined. Those seven years at Marlfield clearly show. It’s hard not to OD on sourdough balls before starter arrives. Mushroom and parmesan tart, roast parsnip, butternut squash and beetroot (€7.50). Main is bouillabaisse of monkfish, scallops and plaice served in a shellfish sauce (€23.50) with chips (€3). Finally, an Irish cheese board of Wicklow Blue, Bradley’s Sheep Milk and Carlow Tomme with apple chutney and homemade crackers (€7.70). There’s plenty more of course(s) on the menu but choices must be made. Sure enough, Sha-Roe lives up to, and surpasses, all expectations.
“We’ve been here nine and a half years now,” confirms Swiss born Stephanie. “It’s very funny by pure chance we came across the house for sale in an estate agents in Gorey. I love living here!” Henry and Stephanie live upstairs above the restaurant with their three year old child and another is en route, so to speak. Soon the population of Clonegal will be 281.