Review - The Strawberry Tree: a dinky ice lolly of wild sorrel and rhubarb is a palate-cleanser
The Strawberry Tree, BrookLodge Hotel, Macreddin Village, near Aughrim, Co Wicklow (0402) 36444
The Strawberry Tree restaurant at Macreddin Village is Ireland's only certified organic restaurant, a labour of love for Evan Doyle, a chef and one of the co-owners, with his brothers, Eoin and Bernard, of BrookLodge, the hotel in which it is located.
It's been a decade or more since I ate here, but the dark room with its distinctive mirrored-ceiling décor and inky walls is as I remember it.
I'm at BrookLodge to learn more about the ZER0KM dinner which Doyle, his head chef, James Kavanagh, and their 20-strong kitchen team are putting on this October, in an initiative designed to show people just how much work goes into growing and producing the food that we eat, and to get us to think a little harder about food waste.
Every single ingredient for the dinner is being either grown in situ or sourced from within a one-kilometre radius of BrookLodge. That includes the wine, made with the assistance of Irish winemaker David Llewellyn of Lusca in north Co Dublin, from grapes grown on BrookLodge's own 14-year-old indoor vine; a salt substitute made from dehydrated, powdered celeriac; wheat for the bread to accompany the meal, and even the rapeseed for the cold-pressed oil to be used for cooking. It's a complex and intense project and one which clearly has the BrookLodge team excited.
In any event, the trip to Wicklow provides an opportunity to revisit The Strawberry Tree, which is about half full on the night; the other customers, mainly American, appear to be guests staying in the hotel.
BrookLodge has a second restaurant, La Taverna Armento, which serves a casual southern Italian menu and I'd guess that this is popular with families with young children, who may revolt against the musical selection in the more formal Strawberry Tree, which seems to consist of a Now That's What I Call Classical Music CD on repeat.
BrookLodge is a purpose-built hotel and village, constructed in the late 1990s. It hosts a monthly food market, has its own pub, shop, smokehouse and bakery, and in recent years has expanded by adding on buildings, including a wedding venue, Brook Hall, that does a roaring nuptial trade. In the grounds there are Insta-friendly ducks and hens, orchards, and a herb garden.
The tasting menu kicks off with a few snacks - the little portion of rabbit is robustly flavoursome - before a first course of perfectly poached duck egg on a bed of slender greens topped with a soldier of brioche.
Things progress on to a well-judged late-summer dish of tomato at its intensely sweet best with fermented garlic and '90-minutes cheese', a fresh cow's milk cheese which the kitchen makes each night just prior to service - hence the name.
There are wild scallops in a full-flavoured lobster consommé and - our favourite dish of the night - wild wood pigeon with a pearl barley risotto studded with peas and beans and a whiff of pine from the surrounding woods in the ether. (BrookLodge employs a full-time forager, Clothilde Walenne.)
A small tranche of Clare Island organic salmon is complemented by smoked beetroot, and then there's a dinky ice lolly of wild sorrel and rhubarb tied with raffia to be unwrapped from its bag instead of a palate-cleansing sorbet.
Duck with fermented gooseberry and a bone gravy is richly satisfying, and then there's the fizz of a wild berry soda - perhaps enhanced with a smidgeon of Prosecco - before a wild woodruff panna cotta that goes some way towards convincing me of the merits of this dish (school dinners, blancmange, too close for comfort), aided no doubt by the wild Beech Booze bilberries and shards of honeycomb that accompany it, and the Beech Booze 2016 that is Macreddin's house hooch.
The menu at The Strawberry Tree changes monthly to reflect the truly seasonal nature of the food ethos here, but Doyle and Kavanagh work with a cohort of farmers, producers and suppliers such as vegetable man Denis Healy and poultry woman Mary Regan, who are regular suppliers.
The wine pairing costs €35 and includes Móinéir Strawberry Wine made by Wicklow Way Wines just down the road. Aside from this, the wines are all organic. The wine service requires more training and attention; there's a little too much bluff and hope-for-the-best about the descriptions that accompany the pouring.
The bill for dinner for three - two with wine pairing plus an extra glass each, and one with a couple of soft drinks - comes to €355.20. If there's a restaurant in Ireland with provenance to match that at The Strawberry Tree, I've yet to eat there, and food this impeccably sourced doesn't come cheap.
If you pay a visit, be sure to ask for a look at the Wild Foods pantry, where the restaurant stores all manner of pickles, cordials and ferments that it uses all year round. It gave me a serious case of pantry envy.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The Strawberry Tree is not a restaurant to visit in pursuit of cheap eats. Rather than go for the tasting menu, there is a five-course dinner menu for €65.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The nine-course tasting menu with matching wines is priced at €120 per head.
THE HIGH POINT
The impeccable wild and organic sourcing at The Strawberry Tree, combined with the skill of Evan Doyle and his head chef, James Kavanagh, makes for a food experience to remember.
THE LOW POINT
The décor needs an upgrade.