Having long heard of Out of the Fire Cafe in Donegal, I decided an extensive review was in order. Their proximity to Seven Springs Resort seemed to position them as an off resort dining alternative, and I had planned to make several visits to thoroughly check them out. My thought now is that one visit will be quite enough.
The restaurant is housed in a large lodge like building which sits a bit off Route 31 in Donegal and can be a little hard to find if you’re not sharp-eyed. The renovation resulted in a dining room that is sophisticated and a bit rustic. I arrived at 5:00 (opening time) on a Sunday and the restaurant was already filling up. A seat at the counter of the semi open kitchen afforded me a view of the back scenes action. The restaurant is BYOB, and not having planned ahead by purchasing a bottle of wine, I settled for a Labatt Blue which I just happened to have in my car. The menu is not huge and seafood is well represented, as you would expect from a restaurant that bills itself as Fresh Fish Fine Dining. Since this was planned as a multi visit review, I decided to graze on several appetizers for my meal, figuring this would give a nice overview of several dishes.
First up was the Hummus Tasting ($10), three different hummus recipes served with warm Herb & Manchego Flat-bread and a Greek cucumber salad. The standout of the trio was the Roasted Garlic, Basil & Artichoke Hummus. The roasted garlic gave the hummus a richer, deeper flavor than the usual raw garlic version. The flat-bread was served properly warm and the herb oil it was brushed with had a nice nose of basil. However, the manchengo seemed missing in action and the salad was totally flat unless a good chunk of feta or one of the Kalamata olives was in the bite.
House Smoked Salmon Platter ($13) was served next. The salmon was perfectly smoked but I was puzzled by the glaze. It appeared to be Balsamic but it was lacking in acid and aroma and instead just came across as a nondescript syrup. If indeed it was supposed to be a Balsamic reduction, perhaps it was due to using a commercial product that I spied in the kitchen as opposed to making it themselves from a high quality vinegar. The salmon was served with a crispy flat-bread, haphazardly cut chunks of pineapple, sliced strawberries, strips of sun-dried tomatoes, and a creamy dill sauce. I failed to see the logic of the sun-dried tomatoes and the fruit was pedestrian. The dill sauce was marginally successful in providing some needed acid for the salmon, but it lacked any herbal note, possibly due to using dried dill. If it had been prepared with fresh it probably sat too long as there was no brightness in the sauce at all.
The final appetizer was Seared Sea Scallops ($10) with Ginger Infused Bamboo Rice, Spicy Pickled Carrot Salad, Sweet Thai Chili & Mandarin Glaze. The sea scallops were perfectly seared and seasoned and were served on a lump of glutinous rice. I’ve never understood the fascination some chefs have with sticky rice. In my opinion, its major virtue is that it can be molded into shapes. It has none of the perfume of Basmati or Jasmine rice unless you add flavor to it, and in this case I failed to detect the “infusion” of ginger which would have accomplished that goal. The Spicy Pickled Carrot Salad was insipid and could not be called “spicy” in any sense of the word. The Thai Chili was a bottled preparation available off the shelf and the Mandarin Glaze appeared to be the same basil heavy herbed oil which brushed the flat-bread served with the hummus.
I was seated next to a nice older couple from Chicago and observed their meals also. The Seared Sea Scallops & Jumbo Lump Crab Angel Hair Pasta looked palatable but appeared pretty light on the promised yellow and green squashes, and the roasted tomatoes. The gentleman did seem to enjoy it though. The lady was served the Pan Roasted Jumbo Lump Crab Cake which appears on the appetizer menu. I swear, I have never seen a more monochromatic dish served in my entire life. Picture a brown, spherical crab cake served on a brown roasted corn puree surround by brown spherical sweet potato hush puppies. Simply unbelievable!
Additional observations left me even more disillusioned with this restaurant than the food I had already been served. For example, I noticed even though they have white tablecloths, they top them with paper! If a restaurant can’t afford to replace a tablecloth between turns they might as well dispense with them altogether. It reminds me of covering the “good” couch with plastic slip covers. It was also disturbing to see the grill cook using the same holding rack for seafood as he used for meat. Even forgetting the potential for cross contamination, there is no way the lamb rack won’t pick up a hint of fishy odor through the course of the evening when placed in the same spot as raw fish. Another health code violation is the handling of raw food with bare hands unless it will then be cooked. Personally I’ve never been a stickler for this rule, but it is pretty stupid to do it in an open kitchen in front of customers. One of the more popular dishes leaving the kitchen that evening was the Grilled Crab Stuffed Maine Lobster Tail. No amount of micro greens, chutneys or whatever could disguise the fact that this was simply a frozen rock lobster tail filled with crab cake mixture, a “dish” you can find in a mediocre seafood house in the country. I’d be embarrassed to put this on the menu of a restaurant that bills itself as Fresh Fish Fine Dining.
One further incident reinforced my decision never to return to this restaurant and it concerns the subject of corkage fees. Corkage fees were originally designed for customers who wished to bring a special bottle of their own wine into a restaurant which served wine. The restaurant would charge a fee partly to make up for the lost revenue and partly as a charge for the labor involved in serving the wine, providing glasses, etc. I was discussing this issue with the gentleman sitting next to me and I made the point that I thought it was “cheap” of Out of the Fire to charge me the $2 corkage fee for my beer when they had provided no glasses or ice in “service” for that fee. I was not complaining, simply observing that after spending $33 on food, the additional $2 for “allowing” me to drink my beer was a little “cheap” Unfortunately the saute cook had to mutter under his breath “Yeah, it’s cheap”. I don’t know if he was agreeing with me or if his meaning was that it’s only $2. To me, it doesn’t matter. If he was agreeing with me he should be reprimanded for bad mouthing his place of employment. If he disagreed he should have remained silent. Either way, it’s highly unprofessional for an employee to interject a comment into the conversation of the patrons. Overall, this is one more restaurant in a long list which aims too high and misses by a wide mark.