Review: 35 Main Street... Death row dining - premium champion pork hits the right note on a cold winter's day
35 Main Street, Kenmare, Co Kerry (064) 6641559, no35kenmare.com
We are at Sheen Falls in Kenmare for a winter Wine Academy weekend led by the hotel's Quentin Caraux and Anthony Tindal of Tindal Wines. The weather is miserable, as wet as can be, the Sheen river in full spate. It's so bad - blissfully bad - that really it would be reckless to spend any time outside in the elements, and so we resign ourselves to lounging around by log fires. We make a respectable start on Milkman.
Friends are passing through Kenmare, and we venture out in the rain for proper French pastries and great coffee at Maison Gourmet. We pick up chocolate at Benoit Lorge's shop - a Kenmare rite of passage - and browse the shelves at Alain Bras' excellent wine shop, which used to be called Eugene's but is now Alain and Christine's. Bras used to be the sommelier at Sheen Falls.
We intend to review Mulcahy's, one of the town's two best-known restaurants, the other being Packie's, but nobody bothers to return the message that we leave on the answering machine looking for a table.
A few doors along Main Street from Mulcahy's is No. 35. I know about the restaurant from a press release sent to me a couple of years ago when the proprietor, Dermot Brennan, was named Champion of Ireland 2016 for Best Pork Sausage at the prestigious Fins Goustiers European Championships. The awards are held annually in Normandy, and are the European Championships for sausages and white puddings; they are only open to artisan butchers who produce their own products.
A mile or so outside town, Dermot keeps a free-range herd of rare breed, pedigree saddleback pigs, and he says that the location, a short distance from the Atlantic, gives the meat a distinctive flavour. The high salt levels and iodine-rich content of the plants and grasses that the pigs feed on make the muscle cells in the flesh retain more moisture so the meat is juicier and more tender. A lot of Irish pork is intensively reared and tastes awful - I don't buy it, and would never order it in a restaurant. But given the provenance story at No. 35, how can we order anything else?
A dish of sausage, champ mash and onion jus is, says my husband, his death row meal. With two spirals of meaty, tasty sausage and buttery, scallion-riddled mash it's simplicity incarnate, and yet the Marmite-like stickiness left on the plate at the end is so damn good that we end up running our fingers across it to make sure that we don't miss even a smidgeon.
A pulled pork sandwich in a brioche bun is equally good, the meat soft and tender, the smoky barbecue sauce on the side with enough of a tang to cut through the richness of the meat. The fries that accompany it are great - hot, crisp, just right. They look hand-cut. Octopus is tender thanks to being frozen overnight and then marinated in milk or yoghurt. The portion is starter-sized, flavoured with smoked paprika, accompanied by 'textures of heritage carrot' and cubes of house-made chorizo that also comes from the saddlebacks.
The chef, Tony Schwarz, who was formerly at Sheen Falls, has taken up pickling with a vengeance and pickled vegetables pop up everywhere, some are more successful than others.
We finish with a shared chocolate torte - chocolate mousse on a flourless cocoa sponge, with ice-cream in a puddle of berry compote and a boozy chocolate sauce - that's a bit much at lunchtime but good nonetheless.
With a soft drink and a bottle of off-dry Stonewell cider that goes well with anything piggy, our bill comes to €62.65. At lunchtime, No. 35 is quiet, but friendly and chatty service makes up for the lack of other customers.
ON A BUDGET
At lunch, a bowl of soup and brawn with celeriac slaw, gherkins and crisp bread costs €13.45.
ON A BLOW OUT
Octopus to start followed by steak and dessert will mean a bill of €120 for two before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The pork from the owner's own free-range saddlebacks.
THE LOW POINT
On a rainy Saturday in winter, we are the only customers.