Review - Restaurant Chestnut: 'The bread and butter is an event in itself'
Restaurant Chestnut, The Chestnut Tree, Staball Hill, Ballydehob, Co Cork, (028) 25766, restaurantchestnutwestcork.ie
'This place died as a pub, and it had to reinvent itself." That's the note I made on the back of the menu at the end of our dinner at Chestnut in Ballydehob. The words belong to Robbie Krawczyk, the chef whose intimate 18-seater this is. It's probably not sustainable for every failing pub in rural Ireland to morph into an exceptional modern restaurant, but wouldn't it be magnificent if they did?
The interior still bears the look of the pub that it was. Either side of the door there's a round table in the window, with another, larger, one on a platform to the right. Up a couple of steps to the back, in view of the kitchen, are another few. There's dark paint, panelled walls, and a vaguely mid-century aesthetic that doesn't try too hard; this is not a refit by a restaurant group: more a stylish, low-key labour of love on a budget. The original stools up at the bar "bear the imprint of a thousand arses" says my dinner companion. Robbie tells us he plans to keep these for walk-ins.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The chat with Robbie comes at the end of the meal, not at the beginning, and only because we have been rumbled. If his name is familiar, it's perhaps because you remember him from the late and still lamented Chop House in Lismore, a great spot that just hadn't enough in the way of passing trade, and because the name Krawczyk has long been synonymous with good charcuterie, made by Robbie's father, Frank. More recently, Robbie was cooking at Tankardstown in Slane, and now he and his partner, Elaine Fleming, have hung out their shingle in Ballydehob - currently a contender for the trendiest village in Ireland.
Bread and butter used to be a by-the-by, something you ate absently, without attention, because you arrived hungry, only to rue it later. Now it's an event in and of itself, and you'd be mad to pass on it at Chestnut, where Robbie serves a spelt sourdough with butter that's made and smoked in house, and then sprinkled with sea salt flecked with gold. If that sounds like a lot of nonsense, I can't vouch that the gold adds anything to the flavour, but it sure does look pretty, and the chewy crust of the bread and flavour of the butter are immense. There's a cute loaf of brown too, and we demolish both. No regrets.
Chestnut offers a three-course dinner menu, but we've driven all the way from Dublin and nothing is going to stop us from going the whole hog and having the tasting menu, which kicks off with snacks of brandade and mustard: spheres of salted white fish and potato topped with a blob of mustardy dressing and a wild garlic flower, and a cracker adorned with parsley emulsion and what looks like caviar but turns out to be herring roe. It's a good start.
Charred asparagus with potato and yoghurt is topped with "edible earth" made from mushrooms "and lots of other secret ingredients", according to our waitress, and there's also trout roe and leaves that might be nasturtium, and rather than there be too many things going on there's a subtle, felicitous harmony to the way these elements come together. Next: impeccable scallops with squid ink infused with citrus and ginger, cauliflower purée and discs of apple and - again - if that all sounds as if it might be a bit too much, it isn't. Instead, it is rather wonderful.
Cylinders of compressed rhubarb rolled in anti-humidity (!) sugar are a jewelled green - how is this done? - interlude, before brill with mussels and ham fat, a West Cork version of lardo, in a lemon butter sauce with slender-stemmed broccoli, our favourite dish of the night, although the full-flavoured duck with artichoke purée, crisp oyster mushrooms and turnip tops that follows comes close.
Sabayon forms an ethereal cloud over the apple-iest apple and oats, and there's more rhubarb - in multiple forms, dehydrated, compressed and puréed - with set milk and pistachio. All the way through our meal there have been flowers adorning the dishes, reinforcing what is a distinctly rural and distinctly West Cork sensibility. (I wish that I had paid more attention during Miss Nightingale's wildflower classes at Talbot Heath because really I should know their names.) In the modern way, the portions are nicely judged and the meal beautifully paced. We'd have preferred cheese to one of the sweets (and should rhubarb have appeared twice?) but these are the most minor of quibbles.
With a bottle of Givry Rouge 1er Cru Clos Jus 2015 - classic, savoury Pinot Noir - from a short list that could do with more wines with lower ABV, our bill for two with water comes to €186 before service.
Levis' a few doors along the street is one of those pubs where you end up falling into conversation with strangers, in a good way, and then we are off by taxi to the lovely Seaview House in Ballylickey, where the gardens are beautiful, and the hospitality mighty. Next day, we bask in sunshine and the result of the referendum, and by the time we make it to Baltimore the people from Seaview have already dropped off the jacket we had left behind to our next hotel. Why would you go anywhere else?
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The fixed-price dinner menu is priced at €50. This price includes snacks, bread, butter and sorbet.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The tasting menu is €65 so dinner for two costs €130 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Robbie Krawczyk has a new home where his cooking is assured and has a profound sense of place. Hip hip. Lucky Ballydehob.
THE LOW POINT
Mobile phone coverage in Ballydehob can be challenging, so be sure to book your taxi home ahead.