Ballinspittle, Ballynagore, Ballynacarrigy, Bally . . . blimey! Even with a Ph.D. in Gaelic linguistics you'd need help navigating your way through Irish locales. Ballingarry, however, is a name you'll remember, for this Lilliputian village is home to one of Europe's most magical guesthouses: the Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge. Located just north of the hamlet of Adare, the inn's neat crème brûlée-colored 1884 structure once housed a small convent. Its owner, Daniel Mullane, attributes his enormous success solely to the good vibes he inherited from the nuns. What modesty.
The Mustard Seed is surrounded by an exuberant kitchen garden and filled with flower arrangements and comely collectibles that range from rare antiques to quirky flea market finds. The kitchen announces its excellence with the bread basket—a silver bowl, actually—piled with brown soda bread that could double as cake, rapturous scones, and tiny pleated "just one more" rolls, made for dunking into the smooth parsnip and Bramsley apple soup tinged with lemon verbena. Warm phyllo-wrapped goat cheese might sound like a cliché, but not once you savor the rich, tangy cheese from west Clare (those goats eat only wild herbs), complemented by an elegant little salad of plums and caramelized walnuts. Beignets of monkfish, sole, and turbot with an almost transparent pepper coulis make a study in texture. The bright spinach bundles in a frothy champagne sauce burst in your mouth, releasing the plump marine flavor of barely cooked oysters.
The meats, whether a rich steak or miniature chops of prized local lamb, come from a trusted village butcher. But the squab is as wild as the river salmon, which arrives garnished with a handful of mussels and splashed with a light cream sauce. The apple-and-black currant crumble tastes even sweeter with a glass of port by the drawing-room fire.
Afterward, cocooned in an oak four-poster under a striped canopy, I dreamily surveyed my room: tasteful prints, a dramatic bunch of dahlias, antiques left and right, plus a still life of three tiny apples on a stark white plate. In the morning, when I parted the chinoiserie drapes, the sun finally winked from behind the clouds to light up the manicured lawn's pond and a riot of flowers framed by Gainsboroughesque trees. Only breakfast—fresh Limerick ham and an encyclopedia of Irish farmhouse cheeses—was better than the view.
The tourist spillover from the nearby Ring of Kerry, mother of all Irish scenic routes, and the presence of two world-class hotels have transformed the once sleepy town of Kenmare, drawing crowds to what's become a top-notch gastronomic destination. Brits with baronial ambitions fall for the somber Victoriana and the Francophile cooking at the Park Hotel. Activity-hungry Americans, however, prefer Sheen Falls Lodge, an 18th-century hideaway of the earl of Kenmare retooled into an ultra-polished resort with a pool, a gym, salmon fishing, and horse stables on its sprawling grounds. Sheen Falls' other trump card is its ambitious young chef, Chris Farrell.
One of Kerry's infamous storms was roaring when I arrived at La Cascade, the hotel's restaurant overlooking a waterfall on the Sheen River. This excess of H2O brought to mind wellies and wax coats, and the predictable hotel dining room trappings didn't exactly ooze warmth. The peach-colored walls were hung with stately oil paintings; a lady tinkled away on a white baby grand. I panicked. Would it be another yawn of a hotel meal?
I started with an oversize raviolo bulging with lobster and gilded with caviar. The sweet-tart cream on the pasta—with its exotic suggestions of citrus and star anise—immediately calmed my bland-food worries. Startlingly delicious, it pushed the dish to a higher level. Farrell's ingredients are fiercely local and religiously seasonal, and he assembles them into intricate but breezy creations with the quiet aplomb characteristic of young Irish chefs. Rosy petals of house-smoked duck breast came draped over a fried eggplant round and ringed by precise batons of tart caramelized apple, a little spinach, and a swirl of basil oil. The dish was both earthy and sophisticated.
Salmon is practically elevated to sainthood in County Kerry, and Farrell treats it accordingly. He cures the fish in sugar to silky perfection; or pan-fries it gently, then finishes it under a grill. He offsets the moist, opulent flesh with a refreshing "compote" of artichoke hearts and baby bok choy. The smoky red-wine glaze on the salmon can almost stand up to a 1962 Château d'Yquem from the hotel's famous cellar. Yet the spirited young sommelier, Alain Bras, would be just as happy to let you discover an up-and-coming Lebanese red.
By morning the storm had subsided to a drizzly whisper. I meandered through Kenmare, a bouquet of pastel-colored 18th-century row houses, every second one seemingly occupied by a restaurant. Unfazed by the plethora of lunch choices, the locals gravitated toward Purple Heather, a cross between a pub and an auntie's parlor cluttered with vintage mirrors, posters, and prints. The modestly awesome food here is no surprise to anyone who knows the proprietor, Grainne O'Connell. The cooking gene must run in the family—O'Connell's sister, Maura Foley, owns the beloved Packies down the street; along with Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School, Foley is regarded as a godmother of New Irish Cooking.
At Purple Heather, you'll find a comforting fish soup, smooth, robust, and teeming with prawns, mussels, and crab; a toasted cheddar sandwich with lashings of apple chutney; a platter of cold seafood, flawlessly cooked. It's pub grub gone to heaven. O'Connell's dense, fragrant Guinness fruit loaf made me yearn for the real thing, which I found at O'Donovan, a tiny traditional pub next door. Sharing a thick, bready stout with toothless old-timers in a dark lair, I forgot all about boutique cheeses and organic greens. At least until dinnertime.