The Green Barn: 'The kitchen is bound to gain in confidence and technique'
The Green Barn at Burtown House & Garden, Athy, Co Kildare (086) 2631485
You can't argue with the idea of a restaurant that gathers many of its ingredients from its own organic gardens, and sources the rest from local organic and free-range farmers; we all want a place just like that near where we live. That's the premise of The Green Barn at Burtown House, built in 1710 for Robert Power, a Quaker, and passed down the female line to what is now the Fennell family.
James Fennell is a well-known photographer, and he and his wife, Joanna, a jewellery designer, and his mother, Leslie Fennell, an artist, are behind the Green Barn, an Avoca meets Kinfolk enterprise that's part-restaurant, part-shop, located close to the M9 near Athy.
The gardens at Burtown were originally laid out by Isabel Shackleton, who was married to Fennell's great-grandfather, a first cousin of the explorer Ernest Shackleton.
They feature herbaceous borders, shrubberies, a rock garden, a yew walk divided by a pergola, a sundial garden, an old orchard, a more formal stable yard garden and a large woodland garden surrounded on all sides by water. Many of the plants were brought to Burtown from the Lusk garden of Wendy Walsh, James Fennell's late grandmother, an eminent botanical artist.
Regrettably, on the day of our visit, the rain was pouring down out of the heavens and the closest that we got to exploring, if you discount the short walk from the car park, was peering out of the windows of the restaurant at the vegetable garden outside. This is under the care of Dermot Carey, a familiar name in the world of organic growing and a man who has been associated with many walled garden projects in Ireland, including those at Lissadell and Richard Corrigan's Virginia Park Lodge. Carey is also responsible, with David Langford, for compiling the Heritage Irish Potato Collection, which comprises over 200 varieties. He is certainly a man who knows his potatoes and they must grow well at Burtown, because they feature in many of the dishes at The Green Barn.
The menu is admirably short, but we were disappointed to be told that two of the five main courses were unavailable, shortly before 2pm. The restaurant was only about half-full but alas, there was to be no Cashel Blue, Spinach and Walnut Tartlet for us, nor any Slow Cooked Leg of Lamb with Quinoa, Brown Short Grain Rice and Mint Pesto.
We started with a cabbage soup featuring ginger and coconut... and lots of potato, big chunks of it. It wasn't a success; green and too worthy. Octopus salad, on the other hand, was a sensational dish (later, we would wish that we had ordered it as a main course rather than a starter), the meat charred and tender, served alongside a delicate aioli, a dollop of good guacamole, and the prettiest array of kale, cabbage and multi-coloured beetroot from the garden. It's the second time that I've encountered octopus on an Irish menu in the last month, having very rarely seen it on offer anywhere before.
Free-range Chicken, Spinach and Tarragon Pie came with an unexpected potato topping; we had assumed (and hoped for) pastry. The pie gave the impression that there's an abundance of tarragon as well as potatoes in the garden. The chicken component was, on the other hand, scant, and the smear of cold celeriac purée on the plate alongside the pie dish struck an odd note. We felt that the dish was over-priced at €16.
The burger, also €16, was a modestly sized patty flavoured over-strongly with rosemary, topped with caramelised red onions and a cloud of finely grated Parmesan, accompanied by more of that gorgeous aioli. It came with small potatoes that had been roasted with their skins on and cold by the time that they came to the table. An orange and almond cake by way of dessert was nicely damp.
With the exception of the octopus dish, the food at The Green Barn is firmly in the realm of home-cooking. There's nothing wrong with home-cooking of course, but it has to be exceptionally good to work in a restaurant setting. Customers need to feel that they are getting something substantially better than they can rustle up themselves.
The Green Barn reminds me a little of the restaurant that organic farmer, Marc Michel, ran in a barn on his farm at Kilpedder in Co Wicklow a decade or more ago. The kitchen had the same access to great produce that The Green Barn does, and the menu was unpretentious. But Michel was a Cordon Bleu trained chef and it showed on the plate. It's early days at The Green Barn, though, and with access to such excellent ingredients, the kitchen is bound to gain in confidence and technique.
With one Synerchi kombucha, a tea and a coffee, our bill came to €60.80 before service and without wine.
6/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Home-made breads served with kale and feta dip, beetroot hummus, and garden pesto are €6.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
Dinner for two consisting of a starter of smoked salmon with spinach and chickpea purée on focaccia (€8), followed by the the slow-cooked leg of lamb (€24), baked berries cheesecake (€6.20) and coffee would result in a bill of more than €80 for two before wine.
THE HIGH POINT
The octopus dish, and the vibrancy of organic vegetables from the garden.
THE LOW POINT
The cabbage soup.