Taste of France on the banks of Lough Erne

On a trip to Fermanagh, Margaret Cunningham discovered just what it was that attracted a Frenchman to move from the South of France and open up a restaurant on the banks of Upper Lough Erne

The silence was broken by a duck flapping its wings on a distant island and the intermittent piercing cries of a hyperactive pair of coots chuntering through the broken reeds foraging for snails and insect larvae.

It was a cold but golden morning at Kilmore Quay at Lisnaskea on Upper Lough Erne. A gentle mist slowly lifted to reveal a scattering of small islands: Rabbit Island, Friars Island and Innishcorkish, Little wonder that this idyllic place has drawn Frenchman Pascal Brissaud from the hedonistic joys of Cannes on the South of France to set up home here and create the Watermill Restaurant with rooms. Built in the style of an old French watermill this wonderful thatched building with dormer windows reminiscent of large bushy eyebrows, has a small cascading waterfall at the entrance and a 100 gallon aquarium in the foyer.

“I wanted my guests to feel they were on the water so I built these ponds and planted all these beautiful water-margin plants” says Pascal. It is so beautiful in the Summertime and guests can enjoy dinner on the patio and experience the beauty of all of this.”
Pascal is an ebullient man who was driven by a dream to own a restaurant beside water. But why not the South of France? “My big passion is fishing and I came to Fermanagh in 1996 and I fell in love with it. Look at this – it is heaven. “ I discovered there is a little more to it than that though. “I also fell in love with a Cavan girl, Valerie Smyth, and here we are” he laughs.

With many years working as a chef in Michelin star restaurants in France, Pascal’s first venture in Ireland was in Newtownbutler in County Fermanagh. He then moved to Armagh where he opened the highly successful Manor Park restaurant in Armagh which he ran for 6 years. However, the dream of a restaurant close to some good fishing, drove him on and he found the spot, just outside Lisnaskea.

The Watermill Restaurant and its seven beautifully furnished rooms which are just a stone’s throw from the edge of Lough Erne and nine cottages cost £3 Million to build. The four year project was brought to completion by young Enniskillen Architect Donal McPhillips.

The attention to detail in the Watermill is exceptional. Pascal was very much a ‘hands on’ site and design co-ordinator. “I wanted to build something which had a strong flavour of a French watermill. My parents were antique dealers so I have an appreciation of beautiful, old things.” He shipped over small bellows for the fireplaces – they work beautifully as tables and many of the beams and door lintels were reclaimed from old local buildings. The interior is very classical: elegant furniture, oil paintings, fresh flowers. There is nothing minimalist here. The atmosphere is warm, cozy, glamorous, special.

And the food? Well with Pascal at the helm it has to be perfect. This is a 110 per cent man. The A La Carte menu is pure French with dishes like Escargot and Coquille Saint Jacques. A delicious seafood chowder sent my husband into rhapsodic utterances which I had never witnessed before. I had slow-cooked duck breast with wild mushroom and spinach lasagne. A complex and, I suspect, time-consuming dish to prepare, which was full of distinctive flavours.

The early bird menu has a very good range of lovely dishes and is very reasonably priced at just £19.95 for three courses. Sunday Lunch, which is extremely popular with people booking weeks in advance, also costs £19.95 for three courses.

The Watermill’s seven lakeside rooms are beautifully furnished. I loved the rounded corners and the warm ochre colour scheme. The ornate Napoleon III style furniture is very elegant. Rooms cost just £79 a night so this means you can enjoy a gorgeous meal and not have to worry about having that extra bottle of wine. In fact, I would suggest you forget about an overnight. Go for a short break. With the food and the scenery, like me, you may not want to leave!

The cottages, which sleep eight people, are the most luxuriously furnished I have seen for some time. Pascal hopes they will attract fishermen and their families from across Europe. If you are looking for a beautiful self-catering cottage in a sublime location, get to Lisnaskea post-haste. They cost just £245 for three nights. While Pascal spends a lot of time in Britain and Europe marketing his dream restaurant, The Watermill is in the capable hands of Executive Chef Fabien Cancre and his team of 8 French Chefs. The maitre d’ and restaurant manager are French as well. However, Pascal has plans to introduce young local chefs into the business. “I think it is important to involve the local community and share our experience. The business is expanding rapidly; we are doing lots of wedding receptions and this will mean we will be taking on more staff and I hope they will be from Fermanagh.”

The view across Lough Erne to the islands beyond is glorious. Yes, it can rain a bit in Fermanagh but on the good days when a gentle mist clears to reveal a cloudless blue sky and later you watch as the sun slips behind Doon Mountain in the winter or Cualtagh in the Summer, you realise that the wise Pascal Brissaud, has created a small slice of paradise on Upper Lough Erne.