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Restaurant De la Fontaine in Limerick, Ireland

In 1993, as my wife Geraldine and I were planning our initial trip to Ireland, we read articles in Fodor’s Guide to Ireland, Ireland of the Welcomes magazine and the New York Times about how the Republic’s restaurant faire had recently undergone a radical transformation from the traditional menus of rashers, garlic mashed potatoes and mixed (read that as “chopped) salads into an innovative cuisine nouveau under the influence of doyen Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe Cooking School in Cork. Suffice it to say, as foodies of a high degree, we looked forward to this new frontier. We arrived at Shannon Airport armed with a list of places to eat all over the country, determined to try a new place every night.

First day of our journey took us to a hotel in Limerick. After a good night’s sleep, we set out to locate the only restaurant in that city listed in Fodor’s: Restaurant De la Fontaine, whose culinary achievements had been praised to the sky in the NYT. “Creative use of the freshest local ingredients,” said the reviewer.

Setting out after a light breakfast, we thought it wise to locate the establishment before roaming around the city for the day. It was located at #12 Gerard Griffin Street, a street too small to be on any tourist maps. Asking directions from several shopkeepers, we were directed to the oldest part of Limerick behind King John’s Castle adjacent to the old stone bridge over the Shannon. #12 was a rundown, clapboard, semi-detached townhouse which stood amidst a group of attached brick and stucco row houses. There was a small hand-lettered sign on the door which stated “Restaurant De la Fontaine. Finest French Cuisine.” That would be our spot for the evening.

When we returned after a full day of sightseeing, the early evening had turned quite rainy. As I opened the front door, water dripping onto the floor from my raincoat, it was clear that we were in the entryway of a small apartment building. Four hand-numbered mailboxes and a row of buzzer buttons faced us. A smaller locked door with a grated window had a sign on it which read “Press Button to Allow Entry”. I pressed the one marked “Restaurant” and the door latch clicked open on a dimly lit narrow wooden stairway with a back-lit French tricolor hung from the ceiling.

At the top of the stairs, we entered a small room the size of a closet. It was the waiting room containing an empty coat rack, an antique loveseat with a dark mahogany coffee table set before it. A tiny, but well stocked, bar just opposite the doorway. French and Irish flags were draped on either side of the bar. Not knowing exactly what to do next, we sat down and waited for something to happen.

A young man entered the room wearing a floor-length white apron and tall chef’s hat. Removing both and brushing some flour off the arm of his worn tweed jacket, he greeted us. “Bonsoir… welcome to De la Fontaine. My name is Alain Fontaine. My wife Michelle and I operate in our own home. Make ourselves comfortable. The menus are there on the table. May I get you a glass of champagne, a wine or whiskey?”

I chose a Jameson’s, Geraldine a glass of pleasant Sancerre as we sat back to view the hand-written menu. Alain instructed us, “We ask you to make your selections now in order that our chef will have the time to prepare your meal with proper care. We do not rush our preparation here at Chez Fontaine. Once you order, it will be few minutes before you will be seated. Time to relax and enjoy a starter on the house.”

He wrote our selections on a little white pad and swept out through a curtained doorway behind the bar. In the second that the curtain was parted, laundry could be seen hung from lines of cord running across the ceiling: not just napkins and table linen, but shirts, trousers, socks, and underwear. It seemed that we were in a humble French flat somewhere in Paris. If Fodor’s had not given this place such a rave review, we might have left at that point. Instead, we

decided to savor our drinks and go with the flow. At that moment Alain, now wearing a shorter, darker waiter’s apron with a large corkscrew hanging in its pouch, returned with two glasses of full-bodied claret and a small plate of deliciously spicy sliced salami and pieces of crusty baguette. “On the house,” he said.

“We can seat you in 10 minutes. Please enjoy your starter. You will find the claret wonderful, I’m sure. It is a cabernet from Chateau Lynch, a winery established by an Irish Chieftain who fled from the English way back when. Who knew that an Irish family could bottle such a wonderful French vintage.” He smiled at his own humor.

Again, he glided swiftly from the room, leaving us to stare at each other. “Chateau Lynch?” Gere said. “He must be talking about the Flight of the Earls. I’ll look that up in the history book tomorrow.”

Exactly 10 minutes later we were invited into the dining room by a young lady in a leotard, wool sweater, or “jumper”, as the Irish call it, and a pair of open-top sandals. There were six small wooden tables, each with four chairs, in two rows. All the tables were empty. She seated us at a large open window with back-alley view. A window box on the fire escape just outside held erect holly branches and a few yellow jonquils. The scent emanating from a vase of very fragrant sweet peas masked any aromas which might be rising from trash containers below.

Other than another set of flags on one wall, the decor consisted of several travel posters showing waterfalls and bucolic pasture scenes. There were clothes lines over our heads, empty of course, hanging from exposed ceiling joists. The woman lit a candle in a wax encrusted wine bottle on our table, then clip-clopped across the room in her sandals to the waiting area we had just vacated. She retrieved a full basket of freshly folded laundry which, I surmised, had recently

been hanging just above our table.

Alain then served two tiny plates holding a delightful arrangement of very ripe slices of mango and avocado and pieces of local crabmeat drizzled with the slightest hint of olive oil and broken mint sprigs. Gere took out her journal and made notes about the dish which would soon become a party favorite at our home back in Boston. Next came small bowls of gazpacho. A half-submerged dollop of sour cream floated atop a lime green sea of avocado flecked with bits of red tomato and crab.

The main courses were served with a flourish, as Alain placed each covered dish on the table and removed its metal cover with a wave. Gere had a seafood ragout of local wild salmon, a fillet of turbot and Galway Bay prawns all so fresh that they seemed to swim in a pale green sauce reddened with paprika. My choice was three loin chops of Connemara lamb crisped with bits of caramelized shallot. Pan fried potatoes, soaked in pan drippings, arrived on the side. The two of us toasted each mouthful with delight; she with a chilled sauvignon blanc and I with a full bodied Burgundy. We sampled each others plates and toasted the kitchen as well as our good judgement to choose the place.

The proprietor came to the table once again with simple salads of spring greens tossed in the lightest of vinaigrettes, two more glasses of wine. He topped off our water glasses without so much as a word before retreating to his kitchen. As he opened the door I noticed the young woman take him in her arms and plant a solid kiss on his forehead before she passed by our table with the empty laundry basket.

While Alain cleared dishes and served us each a crusty orange flan, he spoke for the first time since he had started to serve. “Did you enjoy your meals? It is so important to our staff that patrons have fun here at De la Fontaine. Enjoyment of food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

“Wonderful!! Marvelous!!” Gere gushed. “Everything was so expertly prepared. Magnifique!!”

“Alain”, I began, “This is the best restaurant meal I have ever had. You do such a great job here.”

He made a bow to us as he cleared the dessert dishes and empty glasses. “Thank you so much. It means so much to us to have you says such things.”

I looked at him in his waiter’s waistcoat and short apron. The bill was there in his apron pocket. As he passed it to me there was just something that I had to know. “Tell me, Alain, you mentioned your staff here, but, unless I am mistaken, it appears that you alone are the staff.”

Smiling broadly and winking, he said very softly “Mai oui, tis just myself and, of course, my lovely other half. We serve you as if you are the rest of our family.”

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