Paolo Tullio: The Riverside, Killcullen, Co Kildare
Bridging a gap in Kildare
It's perverse I know, but I like to be proved wrong -- especially when my opinion is less than complimentary. For example, I've held the view for a while now that Kildare restaurants are often more expensive than their Dublin equivalents, a view that's been corroborated by experience. This week I found a restaurant that changed my mind and, oddly, that pleased me.
The past couple of years have brought a chill wind to Irish restaurants; people are spending less and going out to dinner less frequently, and restaurants have responded by dropping their margins and providing meals not far off cost. That's great for the consumer, but it's not something that restaurants can continue to do indefinitely. No business can survive without profit.
But, having said that, it's also true that there were restaurants that charged far too much for what they were offering, and the new austerity has put an end to that.
So this week I set off for Kilcullen in Co Kildare, a pretty little town that straddles the Liffey, to try a restaurant that has recently changed management, The Riverside. My guest for this dinner was Lisa McMullan, who, many years ago, used to be head chef in my restaurant and so knows a thing or two when it comes to food.
We found The Riverside easily enough -- the clue to its whereabouts is in the name -- in a new building just off the bridge that spans the Liffey.
It's part of a large complex of new buildings and it has the best of the views. It's literally on the river bank and, in truth, the only thing that spoils the view is the bridge itself, which has to be one of ugliest bridges I've ever seen -- practical but entirely graceless. Still, The Riverside's position is one of its strengths and it has a pretty outdoor heated terrace for the unreconstructed smokers still among us.
Inside it's warm and welcoming, with some of the most comfortable dining chairs it's ever been my pleasure to sit in -- big, soft and deeply upholstered. A shiny baby-grand piano stood testament to the music that takes place at the weekend, and the dining room is divided into three discrete areas, which makes each part feel intimate.
I rarely comment on individuals in these reviews, but I will this time. The maître d', whose name was Alan, was one of the best front- of-house men I've seen. Professional, welcoming and with an easy manner, he made us feel instantly at ease and kept his eye on every table and its needs throughout the evening; a consummate host.
The menu is very straightforward and comes on a large, laminated card. You may choose two courses for €25 or three for €30, with side orders costing €3. It's broken down into clear sections: starters, salads, mains, pies, grills and fish, and all the local suppliers are listed at the end of the page.
There are many dishes that you'd expect to see on a bistro menu, such as deep-fried Brie, grilled prawns, Caesar salad, pork belly, roast lamb, roast chicken, steaks and burgers, but there are also some unusual dishes. Frogs' legs in garlic butter, a warm prawn salad, a Moroccan tagine, blackened salmon or a burger made of foie gras are all out of the ordinary and added a little exoticism to the menu.
The wine list isn't a long one, but it does show signs of care in its selection and the mark-up is reasonable. For example, the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial is listed at €65 and there's a decent Chablis for €30. We decided on a white wine for dinner and settled on a Mâcon Villages for €30, which turned out to be a good choice. A couple of bottles of sparkling water completed the drinks order.
Lisa had chosen the griddled asparagus for her starter and I'd picked the frogs' legs. The asparagus had been cooked just so, with enough of a bite to make it cooked but not soggy, and alongside it was a small dish of a really well-made Hollandaise with a dash of lemon. My frogs' legs were delicious, although I will admit that just about anything swimming in garlic butter tastes great. They were normal-sized legs, not like the giant ones that come from China, but there was enough on them to make them into a satisfying starter.
When we'd finished our starters it became a race between us to finish the Hollandaise, dipping our bread into it.
Our main courses arrived, the slow-roasted pork belly for Lisa and the Guinness and steak pie for me, which came with two oysters and a tiny glass of extra Guinness. It was suggested that I should add the oysters and the Guinness to the pie, but I thought lovely fresh oysters would go too well with the extra Guinness, so I ate them without adding them to the pie.
I looked across the table to Lisa's dish. It was the shape of a trout -- but without the head and tail -- not the usual little square of pork belly, and Lisa declared it to be very good indeed.
I liked my pie too; it had a touch of bitterness from the Guinness, which gave it an interesting flavour. The pie came with a half-pint glass filled with golden, crispy chips and Lisa's pork was surrounded by pan-fried prawn tails -- a kind of surf 'n' turf.
Both of these dishes were designed for people with large appetites and neither of us was able to finish them, although we both enjoyed them.
But in the interests of research we decided to share a dessert and chose the streusel, a fruit and cream dessert with a crispy crumb topping.
We finished our meal with a couple of very good espressos, which we enjoyed outside on the heated terrace.
Our bill came to €93.
ON A BUDGET
On the other side of the building from The Riverside, but sharing the same kitchen, is The Kitchen. The interior is a little less plush, but the menu is cheaper. All the starters are €7, the main courses are €13 and the 10-inch pizzas are all €10. But what you won’t get in The Kitchen is the river view.
ON A BLOWOUT
There is no à la carte in The Riverside, but there’s a menu addition entitled ‘a little extra’. This lists four starters and six main courses that are available by paying over the basic bistro set price. For example, you can have scallops as a starter, which adds €7, or smoked duck breast, which adds €4, and for mains there’s Kerry lobster, which adds €8 for a half or €15 for a whole one.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FAIR
0-15 = POOR