Restaurant review - Campagne: a rare gem...
5 The Arches, Gashouse Lane, Kilkenny City. (056) 777 2858.
A few years ago, my husband was celebrating a big birthday, one of the ones with an '0' on the end that demands a level of celebration above and beyond the usual. One of the ideas that I had was to take him to El Bulli, Ferran Adria's restaurant in Roses, Spain, that was then officially the best restaurant in the world.
I sent off my application for a reservation more in hope than expectation, but the restaurant gods were smiling on us, and one drab Dublin day the email arrived from Spain confirming that I had been successful. I'd requested a table for four, and the big question was: who would we bring with us? There would have been no shortage of willing companions. As it happened, there was little debate. We invited our two best friends, Paddy and Caroline, neither of whom would describe themselves as a foodie (terrible word, I know), but both of whom are reliably up for a bit of fun.
It was a great trip, and there was more laughing at our table in El Bulli that night than at any other, as most of the other diners were working their way through 20-something courses of Adria's signature molecular gastronomy with a reverence that bordered on the funereal. The food that we ate that night was spectacular, but the moment that I remember best is a comment that came from Paddy when he tasted a dish involving an extract of pine from the trees that grow along that part of the coast. "That," he said, "reminds me of nothing so much as Jeyes fluid. Why would you want to have something that smells like toilet cleaner on your plate?"
El Bulli is no longer, and the best restaurant in the world is now El Celler de Can Roca, also in Spain, after years when Noma occupied that position. Molecular gastronomy is not the buzzword in culinary circles that it once was, although you'll still find gels, foams and spherical blobs popping up here and there. There's even a sense that the new Nordic food movement - or at least some of its more extreme iterations - may be on the wane. But in as much as everything changes, then other things stay the same. Paddy and Caroline are still our best friends, and a lunch was overdue.
Campagne in Kilkenny, which has held a Michelin star since 2013 and is conveniently located right beside the train station, seemed like a good choice of venue for a Friday lunchtime skite. The menu focuses on quality Irish produce and I reckoned, from my previous visits, that there was little chance of encountering any over-challenging ingredients.
It turned out to be an excellent choice. Garrett Byrne and Brid Hannon's congenial restaurant manages to be that rare beast: an establishment with a menu that pleases everyone without sacrificing creativity or playing safe. Two of us went for the three-course set menu, one for a mix and match, and one for the à la carte.
The set menu starters were both super-tasty: a soupy smoked haddock, mustard and leek combination topped with a deep-fried organic egg, and a twice-baked Hegarty's cheddar soufflé with marinated beetroot, beetroot chutney and walnuts. Just as well we ordered two of those. From the à la carte, I had the wild venison - cured and tartare - with pickled mushrooms, quince and hazelnuts, an exquisite expression of seasonality, with an immaculate balance of flavours and textures.
For main courses, we had suckling pig confit with braised red cabbage, swede and celery, and roast hake with a saffron and mussel sauce, spinach and fennel purée, both from the set menu and impeccably cooked and presented. While the suckling pig on the set menu uses belly of pork, the suckling pig on the à la carte uses loin, and is accompanied by coco de paimpol beans, black pudding and a gratin of celery. It's a more complex dish, but both versions are big on flavour and skill and we liked them equally. More venison for me, this time with a pumpkin and vadouvan (a French version of Indian curry spicing with additional aromatics) chutney, savoy cabbage, chestnuts, bacon and sage. Sophisticated yet, with the exception of the vadouvan, a dish of intrinsic rural Irishness. There was buttery pomme purée that was beyond luscious, a cauliflower and Comte gratin of equal decadence, and a watercress salad with a hazelnut dressing to make us feel a bit better in ourselves. Oh, and chips too. Very good chips. We noted that the portions were larger than is the norm in Dublin.
Two gorgeous desserts from the set menu - a baked ginger cream with rhubarb and white chocolate Chantilly, and a chocolate tart with malted milk ice-cream and caramelised popcorn - plus an impeccable French-style apple tart and a generous plate of cheese bring matters to a happy conclusion. Set lunch for two, with one person eating from the set menu and the other from the à la carte, and sharing a bottle of Château Lagrange (€38), with sides, water and coffee, came to €146.40 before service. Our bill was rather larger, but we were thirsty that day. Campagne is a rare gem and an excellent excuse, should one be needed, for a day-trip to Kilkenny.
On a budget
The three-course set menu priced at €33 is available at lunch time on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and each evening from Tuesday to Saturday. Check campagne.ie for details.
On a blowout
Eating from the à la carte menu, roast scallops with Iberico ham and blood orange vinaigrette, followed by the fillet of Hereford beef with a couple of sides and a selection of Irish cheeses will cost around €70 a head before wine.
The high point
Beautiful food, relaxed service, the magic of a long lunch on a Friday.
The low point
Having to go home.
9/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Asador on Haddington Road has introduced the Galician Blond Steaks that are having a bit of a moment in trendy London restaurants including Kitty Fisher's. This cut of meat from Northern Spain comes from retired dairy cows, which are slaughtered much later than the beef cattle that we are used to eating in Ireland. The mature marbling of the meat is said to give the steaks impressive depth of flavour. Asador has had an interior makeover in recent weeks, and the 'Lobster' table, with high-backed banquettes and concealing drapes is available for private parties of up to 12.