Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Cistin Eile, Co Wexford
In early 2004, I heard about a young chef called Warren Gillen who had a restaurant in Wexford town called La Riva. There was a bit of a buzz about his cooking, and something quite unusual about his restaurant.
The reason it was unusual was that talented young chefs had previously left the country to find work, but the boom made it possible for them to stay and work at home.
When I reviewed La Riva I used the slightly pretentious phrase 'paradigm shift', because I felt there had been a real shift towards young Irish chefs staying and working in Ireland.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridges of Wexford since then. La Riva closed, Warren went off to work in Duncannon and he quietly dropped out of sight.
Well, he's back. He's opened up a new restaurant in Wexford town called Cistin Eile, and once again I'm going to use that phrase 'paradigm shift', because what he's done is open a restaurant with a new idea.
What he's offering is simple food, well cooked, well sourced and very affordable. I think you can call that a winning formula.
Cistin Eile wears its Irishness proudly. It's not just the name, or the motto emblazoned on the wall -- Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras (hunger makes a great sauce) -- but, more importantly, the menu. Irish dishes take pride of place and local Irish artisan produce forms the basis of those dishes. That's a paradigm shift.
I'd arrived on a midweek night with my friend, artist Patrick Walsh, who in earlier years supported his art by cheffing in California. A fine cook himself, he was the perfect dinner partner.
I won't describe our menu in great detail, because it changes nightly, depending on what's in the market, fresh and in season. How strange a world we live in when such an obvious way of creating good food becomes unusual.
What will be the same is the price -- the menu offers a three-course dinner for €24.50. You choose from six starters, six mains and five desserts.
Pat picked up the wine list and was smiling as he read it. I could see why; it's very modestly priced. I can't remember when I last saw house wines priced at €15, a Chablis for €27 or a good AlbariÃ±o for well under €30.
Without hesitation, Pat announced we'd have the house white, a Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, which turned out to be more than acceptable.
We then turned to the menu. Three starters caught our eye: the yellow split-pea soup, the Breckland duck leg and the black-and-white-pudding dish. After a little negotiation, I got the duck and Pat got the black- and-white pudding.
For the mains, Pat decided on the plaice and I chose the lamb's liver.
The first thing that arrived at our table was a tray of very good breads, which we'd barely tucked into when we both got a demitasse of soup as an amuse bouche.
It was one of those soups that you could have gone on eating. It was thickened with potato, flavoured with cumin and young scallions, had cubelets of corned beef and was topped with parsley oil. It made a really delicious start to the meal.
Then came the starters. Pat had scored a winner choosing the black-and-white puddings, which, according to the menu, came from Tony Butler in Enniscorthy. They were almost certainly the best I've tasted.
Quite apart from the delicate flavour, both Pat and I really liked their consistency. It was much smoother than is usually the case, more like a French boudin.
My starter was equally good; I had a nice confit duck leg with whipped potato and an onion relish.
Then a small thing happened that pleased me. Instead of having the bread removed with starters, our waiter asked us if we wanted more.
I've never understood this obsession with removing the bread after the starters. If you have a tasty sauce on your main course, sometimes a piece of bread is the best way to mop it up.
A really fresh piece of pan-fried plaice was put before Pat, a lemon and herb aioli atop it and fried potatoes accompanying it, while I got two thick pieces of liver, perfectly caramelised on the outside and soft and tender in the middle.
This came with creamed cabbage and a smoked bacon and onion relish. That's about as traditional a dish as you could hope for and it was perfectly executed. You may have been put off liver early in life by a horribly overcooked dish of it, but if you'd started with this, you'd have been hooked for life.
And so to the desserts. Pat chose the coffee-bean panna cotta and I chose the citrus rice pudding.
I'm being picky now, but the desserts were not in the same league as the starters and mains. They were good, but not the highlight of the meal. Still, we enjoyed them and after that had an espresso each.
We both really enjoyed our meal. The food was good, the value excellent, but for me, even more importantly, the food celebrates an Irish tradition and is a showcase for the best of Wexford's artisan producers. It seems that a menu like this is exactly what we need.
With this year's opera festival due to start in a couple of weeks, visitors will have another good restaurant in Wexford Town waiting for them. Our bill for the night came to €74 without a service charge.
80 South Main Street,
Tel: 053 912 1616
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10