When was the last time you saw a pig? That's what the Drama Queen wanted to know as we sat down to dinner in The Camden Kitchen. The waiter had just given us a run through of the specials and they included a pork chop. The question dawdled in the warm evening air for a minute before Ui Rathaile and Swift conceded, with a touch of melancholia, that it had been a very long time since either of them had seen a pig.
"That's right!" the Drama Queen triumphed. "Pigs are imprisoned and horribly maltreated. Intensive farming is an outrage!"
Pigs, she said, are so unhappy they've taken to eating each other. She'd seen a documentary about it, and she, for one, was never going to eat anything but free-range pork.
"What about prosciutto?" I asked her.
"Salami? Chorizo? Mortadella?"
"Not even a sausage?"
"No," she insisted. "Not unless I know for sure the pig lived a happy life."
The happy life of pigs? Here's the thing about pigs: they are inherently grumpy creatures. Believe me, I know. We lived behind a pig farm when I was a child, and one day a huge sow leapt through our ditch, chased me around the vegetable patch and bit me on the leg. It was a terrifying experience that Ma Flannery brushed aside with an off-the-cuffer that merely added insult to my injury. "It's not the sow's fault," she said. "It thought you were another pig."
It thought you were another pig.
This is why you do not want to live in a world where pigs roam free. So you keep them locked up and fattened up. You kill them before they take an Orwellian turn against you. And then you eat them. We had a saying growing up that the only part of the pig you couldn't eat was the squeal. The rest of it: head, ears, tail, crubeens – the whole fat, wobbly lot went into a pot.
The only pig I ever met who was spared this fate was the sick banbh my grandfather kept. It was the runt of the litter and he took it out of the sty for fear the sow would eat it. He used to cradle it on his lap beside the Stanley range, feeding it Guinness and milk from a baby's bottle. One swig for the banbh, two for himself ...
"Well?" the Drama Queen wanted to know.
"You're the food expert. Should we be eating maltreated pigs?"
"Of course not," I cried. "I blame those damn EU regulations that banned feeding swill to pigs. Soy tastes like shit. If I were a pig, I'd eat myself."
With a flurry of assurances from the waiter that Camden Kitchen's pork came from a rare-breed pig who'd lived a happy life in Tullamore, the Drama Queen proceeded to order the chop. More about which anon.
Swift and I opted for the early bird menu. He kicked off with a chicken liver parfait – a big silky smudge of whipped-up pungency, offset by a syrupy peach chutney and prettified with a corsage of baby salad leaves, it was served with brioche. So far, so Gallic.
There were three choices of starter and main on the early bird. Ancient tomato with basil oil and ricotta sounded a tad too 'what's left in the fridge?' for me. I fancied the third option: chilled beetroot soup. Irish people are hardwired to baulk at cold soup, but I love the stuff – especially gazpacho. Beetroot soup, or borscht, is something I first came across in New York, where the Ukrainians have taken ownership of the dish, to the chagrin of the Poles.
Camden Kitchen's borscht was properly, dramatically magenta with a swirl of crème frâiche and lots of leafy flotsam: cress, rocket and strips of celery stalk. An oblong slice of toasted sourdough bobbed, pontoon-like, in the centre. The others looked enviously on as I took my first slurp. It was . . . mmm . . . disappointing. No sweetness from the beets, none of the sourness or sharpness that vinegar and lemon usually imbue. It wasn't unpleasant, just bland – like weaning food.
Ui Rathaile and the Drama Queen were seduced by the specials, and a rather odd sounding combination of confit chicken wings with crab salad. It looked fantastic – the wings were sculpted into upturned lollipops, the skin was pale and crisp, the meat was fleshy and succulent. There were three creamy dollops of crab salad: sweet white meat bound with dill-laden crème frâiche and a jolt of horseradish.
Sprinkled over the top was a mix of radish shavings, cress, and celery for peppery crunch. It was a dish of three parts: the finishing touch: a spray of sweetcorn kernels and a sweet cloudy schmear of creamed corn.
In short, a beauty of a dish that should be awarded a permanent position on the à la carte.
It didn't measure up to the rare-breed pork chops. They were thick and glistening with juice, but once the initial heat dissipated they became stodgy, dry and, it has to be said, rather lacking in flavour.
The accompanying mash and sauerkraut were overladen with wholegrain mustard, and while a baked apple looked cute, a spoonful of old-fashioned apple sauce would have worked better. For all the fuss about the free-range pork, Ui Rathaile and the Drama Queen were rather disgruntled with their lot.
The early bird yielded a winner for myself and Swift. We both ordered roast hake and weren't disappointed: walloping fish steaks, bounding with creamy white freshness, vaguely sweet and saline, served on a mound of herb, scallion and butter-laden crushed potato.
There were snips of smoked bacon, wisps of cress and a string of tiny sweet garden peas rolling about the plate. Simple, fresh and uncomplicated – good chef meets good fishmonger makes for happy diners.
For dessert: a plate of lemon and poppy seed Madeleines that were pretty and light and came with an elegant Earl Grey sorbet.
The citrus crème brulee was a bigger hit. The lid was perfectly caramelized with a hint of marmalade, inside the custard was cool and rich, it was joined by a mango sorbet that Swift commandeered with a swoop of his spoon, while Ui Rathaile disappeared the lemon shortbread.
With so many snouts around the trough, I wasn't surprised it came to this. So, we split the bill and off we set, wee-wee-wee . . . all the way to the Iveagh Gardens to see Bell X1.
TYPICAL DISH: Smoked haddock and pea risotto with poached egg and samphire
RECOMMENDED: Hake with new potatoes and pancetta
THE DAMAGE: €184.30 for four starters, four mains, two desserts, two bottles and two glasses of wine.
ON THE STEREO: None – we ate al fresco
AT THE TABLE: Mostly couples