Refuel: Zest Café and Resturant * * * *
Shazam, I am in awe of you. I love ... no, more than that ... I worship and adore you. For anyone who doesn't get what I'm on about, let me explain. At the end of these reviews, I've often made an uneducated guess at what was "On The Stereo" -- and I've got it horribly wrong. But technology has come to my rescue, in the form of an application called Shazam. It picks up the beat of a track that's playing within earshot of my iPhone and identifies it for me. And so I can tell you, with more authority than usual, that the stereo at Zest was playing Zero 7.
It's not what you expect to hear in a small-town shopping-centre café, but Zest isn't your typical small-town shopping-centre café. No, it is more ambitious than that, but it is also realistic. Let's talk for a moment about that realism. Zest overlooks an ugly concrete car park, and at lunchtime they serve chips with pretty much everything. This may ring repellent to the more delicate and urbane among my readership, but for others it will be an attraction. Consider, if you will, these two facts about modern Ireland: 1. Irish people love chips. 2. You can't park your car on the Main Street of any provincial town. Zest has parking. Zest has chips. The people of Clane love Zest.
I went there with The Theatre Director. Now, The Theatre Director loves only two things: Moliere and Hendrick's iconoclastic gin -- by the bottle. Everything else she either loathes or ignores. She cast a cold eye across the lunch hour assembly of local business folk, turned to me and, swatting an imaginary fly, she said: "I'm not feeling it. You had better order for both of us." Grown men have been known to cry like babies after a lash of her tongue, so I picked up the menu and did what I was told.
The lunch menu at Zest is populist, bright and enthusiastic -- a cast of salads and sandwiches, burgers and pasta that's guaranteed to put bums on seats. Typical dishes include spaghetti with meatballs, fish and chips, and an 8oz ribeye served with Béarnaise. There's also a blackboard of daily specials, an excellent selection of wine by the glass, and even a Bellini, if you've cause to be drinking cocktails in the middle of the day.
From the specials board, I chose chorizo and potato soup, which I thought would be abob with cubes of parboiled spud and chunks of spicy sausage. To my surprise it was blended, and I couldn't have told you what was in it, if I didn't already know. The smokey influence of chorizo was hardly there at all, though there was a vaguely meaty flavour to what was basically a muddy, though not entirely unpalatable, broth. I was more impressed by the bread -- a slab of crumbly homemade brown loaf that was cut with what appeared to be seaweed, perhaps kelp. Either way, it was delicious.
I've never seen so much chicken on a menu. It sticks its beak into every salad, then reappears amid the burgers, and once again among the wraps. It even managed to get a spot on the specials board. We tried a chargrilled breast, marinated in honey and soy sauce, and served warm and golden on a crunchy pile of sugar snap peas, julienned carrot, beansprouts and cucumber. The chicken was juicy with genuine flavour and the marinade was very good, but more could have been made of the salad -- lime juice and some crushed peanuts, we thought, would have livened it up.
The chicken special -- another untypically tasty breast -- was a less coordinated affair, with coriander, red cabbage, tomato, red onion and the devil knows what else thrown in. The spiced beef wrap had a very acute sense of what it was about and where it was going. Spice and a knockout punch of chili peppers were tempered by sour cream, coriander and spring onion.
The dinner menu looks interesting. Seared venison, wild mushroom and chorizo mash and juniper berry jus? This grubby little car park could be hiding a gem.