Eating out: Paolo Tullio visits The Fishman in Wicklow Town
It's long been a rant of mine, the fact that we live on an island surrounded by ocean and yet fish makes up a tiny part of our diet. I often wonder is this a result of being forced to eat fish on a Friday, or whether badly cooked - or overcooked - fish ruined our palates as children.
There are anomalies, of course. Anywhere on the west or south coast you can find good fish on the menu, it's really just the east coast where fish restaurants are rare. I mean, take Dublin as an example. If you want a fish restaurant, there's Matt the Thresher's in Pembroke Street, but if that's not to your liking, then you need to make a trip to Sandycove to find Cavistons, or to Howth where there's a few choices. But fish in the capital itself? Not so easy.
Most restaurants have a couple of fish dishes on their menu, but closer examination brings home the truth that the salmon was farmed in Scotland, the sea bass fillets were farmed in Greece and the prawns were farmed in Indonesia. I say it again, for a people surrounded by water that's a strange set of affairs.
Not everyone is happy to leave the status quo as it is. This week, I met two men who have a vision - they were chef, Keith Kenny, and fishmonger, Alan Hegarty. They've come together in Alan's shop on Wicklow Town's south quay every Tuesday night. The idea is that Keith does a demonstration on how to cook the fish that Alan supplies, and when the dishes are cooked, they're served.
Alan's shop, called The Fishman, holds about 20 people for these Tuesday night events. The charge is €25, and for that, you get a cookery demo, several courses to eat, and wine as well. Clearly, Keith and Alan aren't doing this to get rich, they really do want to reintroduce people to the fabulous seafood that's available from our own territorial waters.
The demo starts at 7.45pm and there's plenty of parking on the south quay outside The Fishman. Inside, there's half a dozen or so tables and a counter set up with angled mirrors above, making sure everyone can see what chef Keith is doing. I was fascinated to see what he was going to do, as his only heat source was a two-ring gas burner. Alan, meanwhile, kept all the wine glasses topped up with either red or white.
He kept everything simple, repeating frequently the mantra of chef Gusteau in Ratatouille, 'everyone can cook'. All you need is the confidence, and by keeping cheffy dishes out of the demo, Keith was able to show how easy good food can be, especially with hyper-fresh ingredients.
We started with prawns, and he showed us how to clean and prepare various types, from warm-water king prawns and Nigerian tiger prawns, to Irish langoustines caught off Youghal. To his frying pan, he added the butterflied prawns, chilli, turmeric, lime juice and garlic, and let them simmer gently, later adding some clams. When the clams opened, the prawns came off the heat and he served them rather prettily on a slate with clams, celery leaves and flat leaf parsley.
While the prawns were cooking, he made a tapenade with black olives, so those two dishes became our starters. For the main courses, Keith had decided to cook some chicken breasts, as he maintained that white meat goes very well with fish. So he opened each breast with his knife, making a pocket, in which he put Gorgonzola and garlic oil. Then, he rolled up the breasts and wrapped them in prosciutto. Normally, he'd cook them in an oven, but here he had to cook them in a frying pan with a lid to keep in the moisture.
For the second main course, he took a valenciana, the big pan that's used for paella, and began to cook a great mix of fish. He began with a jar of passata and a tin of cannellini beans and one of lentils, letting that simmer. Then, he cut salmon and hake into cubes and added them, along with garlic oil, chilli powder and turmeric. He then cooked the last of the prawns and added them to the valenciana along with lemon wedges, creating a dish that was simple, attractive to look at and tasty to eat. The last main course just happened to be one of my favourites: smoked haddock topped with a duck egg. There are two things that immediately appealed to me about this dish. First, the haddock had been simply smoked and not dyed orange, and second, duck eggs have a bigger yolk and are richer and more unctuous than hens' eggs. It's a great combination. A nice idea of Keith's was to poach the eggs in the water that he'd used to poach the smoked haddock.
By the time we'd finished these three main courses, I don't think we could have eaten a dessert, even if one had been presented. So the meal ended right there, and we sat for while talking to chef Keith and fishmonger Alan about the state of Irish fisheries. With 80pc of our national quota gone to other EU countries, there's little left for our own fishermen, although there's chance we can re-negotiate this.
If you have a free Tuesday night head down to Wicklow Town. Food, wine and a demo for €25 each is a real bargain.
ON A BUDGET
As far as I can see, this is terrific value. Simply going along and taking part is about the best value you’ll get. You’ll even get the wine served included in your €25.
ON A BLOWOUT
Since you can’t spend more than €25 on the demo, you could do what we did and buy chef Kevin’s book called Cookability, which is all about dairy-free and gluten-free recipes. There’s also a range of de Cecco pasta and olive oil, which you could buy before heading home.
THE HIGH POINT
I just loved the smoked haddock with the poached duck egg.
THE LOW POINT
I’ve never been a fan of fried prosciutto, and tonight didn’t change my mind.
Value for money: 10/10
Whispers from the gastronomicon
There's a growing awareness of the Michelin award called the 'bib gourmand' - an intermediary award between a simple listing and a star. It's specifically for good food at affordable prices. So South County Dublin and North County Wicklow should be happy to know that there is a new dining experience at The Delgany Inn, which is under the new management of Michelin bib gourmand-awarded restaurateur, Paul Foley, and chef Brian Walsh.
The Pigeon House Café is now open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with an eclectic menu for what promises to be a good dining experience.