Review: Katy McGuinness visits Pilgrim's in Rosscarbery Co. Cork
Pilgrim's, South Square, Rosscarbery, Co Cork. (021) 883 1796
Two weekends ago, I drove from Dublin to Rosscarbery in west Cork for dinner. That's four hours each way, so I'm glad to be able to report that it was worth it.
I'd been planning the trip ever since I received a tip-off a couple of months back. Forgive me for name-dropping, but in this instance, my informant was singer and actress, Maria Doyle Kennedy, who's something of a foodie.
"Get down there fast," she said, "it's astonishingly good. As you were the one who first turned us on to Forest Avenue, I thought it was only fair to give you the heads up."
Forest Avenue is one of the stars of the Dublin restaurant firmament, at the vanguard of a movement that's turning stuffy fine-dining on its head in the capital, and hooray for that. On the evidence of this visit, Pilgrim's - only open since the start of the summer - is doing the same in west Cork.
Rosscarbery is one of those picture-perfect west Cork villages, and on a Saturday night, the cars are double-parked outside Centra. Dan at the (very good) de Barra B&B has asked where we're going for dinner.
"Pilgrim's," we tell him and he looks worried.
"Have you booked?" His face only relaxes when we say that we have.
Pilgrim's is clearly a big hit, and you need to plan ahead, although there are a few seats at the bar available for walk-ins.
Our waitress tells us that the space was once home to the Pilgrim Café, and before that, the Pilgrim bookshop. The chef is Mark Jennings, formerly of The Ethicurean in Bristol and Cork's Café Paradiso by way of Australia, and front of house is run by his partner, Sadie Pearce. Both are originally from west Cork.
Inside, the décor is Kinfolk on a budget, with white painted walls, a natural stone floor, distressed wooden furniture, dried herbs and foliage hanging by way of decoration, a couple of big paintings and Ikea paper lampshades. The staff are all smiles in that hipster-hippy kind of a way, and it feels a little like we are being inducted into a cult because everybody is just so damn lovely.
The schtick at Pilgrim's is that the menu changes each day, so probably none of the dishes that I'm going to tell you about now will be on the menu when you make it there. It's a hyper-seasonal approach, one requiring great flexibility from a kitchen but very much in keeping with food and restaurant trends around the world. Understandably, given this ethos, the menu is short, with just three choices in each of the 'nibbles', 'start' and 'main' categories.
We nibbled on Tatsuta age (sweet chicken) with chilli mayo, and pea ricotta dip with flax crackers. The chicken, tasty little morsels from the undercarriage of a proper free-range bird, came deep-fried in a light batter and looked like squid. The texture was fantastic, although the mayo could have done with a little more heat. The dip was a bright summer green and came scattered with tiny peas and marigold petals, with the crunch of the flax crackers a fine counterpoint.
To start, we chose Beef ssam with a seared spring onion sauce, pickled cucumber and butterhead lettuce - a Korean dish. The cut of beef used was bavette - four small inch-square pieces of intense flavour and tenderness - which we were instructed to wrap up with the sauce and pickle in a parcel of butterhead lettuce. It was a fantastic dish. Creamed Macroom feta came in loose, liquid form, with cherry tomatoes, puy lentils, green beans and fresh herbs. It was, said my guest, like a soupy version of a Greek salad, which wasn't a bad thing at all.
I spent childhood summers fishing with my uncle and cousins in and around west Cork, and the fish that we caught most of was ling, so it was no surprise to see it on the menu here. It's sustainable, and has a firm, cod-like texture.
At Pilgrim's, it came in a tomato broth with courgette and green bean tempura, saffron aioli, and a few split but shell-on prawns, served alongside on a separate plate. A light and flavoursome plate designed to show off both the chef's skill and the bounty of late summer, it succeeded on all fronts.
My guest went for the 12-hour pork belly with sautéed cabbage, salt-baked beetroot with beetroot relish and pickled rhubarb. Another beautifully balanced dish in which the vegetable elements were as important as the meat, with shards of delicious crackling adding crunch and texture. Smoked potatoes were sublime, and a green salad was out-of-the-ground fresh.
We loved the vanilla ice cream with espresso and salted honeycomb - a riff on a classic affogato - but thought cacao cremeaux with chocolate crunch, milk ice, mint and raspberries would have been better with chocolate all the way. With a couple of glasses of elderflower Prosecco, and a bottle of Pinot Noir, the bill came to €141.45 before service. Make the pilgrimage to west Cork as soon as you can.
On a budget
The cheapest main course on the night we visited was priced at €20. 'Nibbles' are substantial and cost between €4.50 and €5.50, while starters are €8.
On a blowout
If you had nibbles, starter, main course, side, pudding and cheese, your bill could reach €55 per head before wine.
The high point
The beef ssam starter is the dish that we're still talking about. We loved the laid-back ambience and the vision of chef, Mark Jennings.
The low point
Vegetarians may be disappointed that so many of the options open to them include cheese.
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
There was good news for Irish chefs at the UK's Good Food Guide awards last month, with OX in Belfast (pictured) landing the prestigious Editors' Award for Restaurant of the Year. Co-owners Stevie Toman and Alain Kerloc'h are on a winning streak this year, notching up ornaments for the mantelpiece like they're going out of fashion. Dublin-born Robin Gill, of The Dairy and The Manor in Clapham (reviewed here previously), went home with the Best Chef gong. Gill has just opened a third London restaurant, Paradise Garage, in Bethnal Green, and the word on that is good too.