Refuel: Campagne *****
5 The Arches, Gas House Lane, Kilkenny.
I'm told it's enormously frustrating to read reviews of long, boozy lunches in restaurants that are miles away from where you live, with no mention of how to get there or of who was doing the designated driving. In my experience, you can never find a teetotaller or a pregnant woman when you need one, so you are at the mercy of Iarnród Éireann.
Permit me, at this point, to state the obvious, I've been intending to visit Campagne for quite some time.
I enlisted Ma Flannery and hatched the perfect plan -- I was going to take the 11.10 train from Dublin, arrive in Kilkenny at 12.45, kill an hour at TK Maxx in the McDonagh Junction shopping centre until Ma Flannery arrived on the 13.43 train from Waterford. We would proceed directly to Campagne for lunch. At 15.35 I would speedwalk to the train station, leaving her with the bill and an hour to kill in TK Maxx before boarding the train back to Waterford at 16.54. Genius.
This, said I to meself, is the life, as I sat on the train, sipping coffee, listening to my iPod and flicking through the Saturday papers. As the train approached Kilkenny, I rang Ma Flannery to tell her what a splendid time I was having. "You must be heading off shortly yourself," I said. "Heading off where?" she replied. "I'm in Mooncoin -- buying spuds." Of course, she swore blind that it was I, and not her, who had mixed up the dates.
Take Two: one month later and our heroine is driving to lunch in Campagne with Ui Rathaile, who has just given up cigarettes. Ui Rathaile can't (won't) drive, but he is an exceptional drinker, and so it befalls our heroine to abstain from fine wine, while enduring his outrageous mood swings, persistent nail biting and murderous sidelong glances, as she conveys him across three counties to eat in one of Ireland's finest restaurants. This is what happens when your mother leaves you in the lurch -- you fall into the clutches of the kind of man she's forever warning you about.
Campagne is tucked away in a new development down an ancient lane way that looked particularly dismal on a wet February afternoon. The contrast once you step inside is remarkable: bright and modern with curving walls, dramatic artwork and gorgeous furnishings.
Coats exchanged for menus, we settled ourselves in, with a basket of freshly baked bread and tumblers of water. The atmosphere was of calm conviviality, with waiters appearing and retreating at precisely the right time. It was the smooth and assured start you hope for, but rarely get in a restaurant.
Lunch at Campagne costs €24.95 for two courses, or €29.95 for three. There's an emphasis on local, seasonal produce, with suppliers namechecked on the menu. The food is distinctly Irish with a respectful nod to the French: Ardsallagh and fennel tart is served with beetroot marmalade, while silverside of local beef comes with poached winter veg and parsley-caper salsa.
I kicked off with smoked haddock fishcake that was golden outside, moist inside. The quality of the undyed haddock shone through -- it had a delicate shredded texture and the smokeyness was subtle and pleasantly woody. The cake was crowned with a poached egg that wobbled and burst into brilliant yellow beneath my fork, and the Hollandaise ... oh the rich, buttery Hollandaise, countered by a splash of vinegar and a pungent sprinkle of scallion. A simple, but stunning composition.
The chicken liver and foie gras parfait that tickled Ui Rathaile's fancy was unavailable, so he opted for its understudy: a pale pork terrine that was tempered with sage and came with sticky fig jam, toast and sprigs of lamb's lettuce. It was beautifully presented, faultlessly executed and, we thought, gentler on the palate than chicken liver and foie gras at this early hour of the day.
From a choice of five mains, I chose a roast breast of Mary Walsh's free-range chicken, which was big and juicy with a loose, meaty texture. It came with a cube of potato gratin and green, creamed leeks that tasted gorgeously wild. The only dud note was a pool of taupe mushroom puree that was grimly reminiscent of condensed soup. I pretended it didn't exist and got on with enjoying the rest.
There were no such hiccups with Ui Rathaile's duck confit. The meat was dark, sweet and pleasantly gamey. It was properly chewy -- without venturing toward toughness. It was well paired with creamed kale -- packed with dark, sulphurous flavour and roughly mashed turnip. Cranberry sauce added a vibrant and somewhat sour dimension.
Dessert was a shared chocolate mousse on a brownie base with a ball of vanilla ice-cream. It was an appropriately excellent finale to a nigh-on perfect meal.
With three glasses of house wine from a well-constructed and fairly priced list, our lunch with coffee came to just over €70, which is as good as it gets on this debt-laden little island of ours.
TYPICAL DISH: Duck sausage with crushed celeriac
RECOMMENDED: Haddock fishcake
THE DAMAGE: €72.70 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, three glasses of wine and two espressos
ON THE STEREO: Michael Bublé
AT THE TABLE: Local foodies
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