Tuesday 20 March 2018

Paolo Tullio: A gripping new chapter

This week I was in the Kingdom of Kerry, in Killarney to be more precise. It's a funny thing; Kerry was the very last county in Ireland that I visited, but I have become more and more of a fan on each subsequent stay. It's partly the beauty of the landscape and partly the strong sense of community that I find so appealing. Kerry has a definite character of its own, and it's one that I like.

I was staying in The Brehon, one of the new hotels on the Muckross Road, and it's next door to The Gleneagle. It's a four-star hotel, but you could be forgiven for thinking it is a five. There's an understated feel to the clean lines of the décor and the spacious lobby makes for a pleasing welcome.

I got a chance to talk to the head chef, Michael Hayes, a young man with an impressive CV -- his last job being in CliffHouse, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Co Waterford.

He'd put together a gala four-course dinner to which I'd been invited, with two choices for each course. I started with braised shin of veal, which had been crumbed and deep-fried and was served on a bed of saffron rice, so it was a re-working of the classic veal Milanese and risotto Milanese.

A lemon and rosemary sorbet followed that, and then for my main course, I chose the old classic, beef Wellington. The other option was a fillet of roasted turbot, but I was in the mood for red meat. Very good it was too, the beef was surrounded with a wild mushroom duxelles before being wrapped in pastry. I finished up with a very good panna cotta, which had been flavoured with limoncello.

Later in the evening, I asked Michael for some suggestions as to where I might enjoy lunch the next day. One of his suggestions coincided with another suggestion that I'd been given, so, armed with two, I set off the next day for Chapter 40, a restaurant in New Street.

Everything inside looked and smelled new, and later I discovered that it had only just re-opened and been re-fitted and re-decorated after a serious flood forced its closure three months ago.

I took a table by a window and scanned the menus. As usual, there were two: an à la carte and a set menu. The set menu had three courses, cost €25 and listed three starters, six main courses and four desserts. Two of the starters looked interesting -- smoked-haddock fish cakes, and the ham-hock and foie-gras terrine. For the mains, there was chicken, pork belly, a rib-eye steak, hake in batter, sea trout and a vegetarian tartlet, none of which really appealed to me at that moment.

I turned to the à la carte and I found exactly what I wanted -- Kerry lamb. It was described on the menu as 'rump, shoulder, tagine and rib' -- a good dish to see what the chef was capable of.

The wine list was quite short, starting with eight house wines and two specials, which were all under €28. After that, only five reds and five whites were listed, starting at €32 and going up to €56 for a Nuits St George. Nonetheless, despite the limited choice, there were some interesting wines. I settled for a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the house wines, and a large bottle of sparkling water.

I've said it before and no doubt I'll say it again, but fish cakes often disappoint. They can end up dry and hard to eat, and they've come to me so often that way that I've almost come to expect it.

Imagine, then, my pleasure when I was presented with a truly excellent fish cake, the smoky fish taste much to the fore, and with a slice of black pudding, braised leeks and a dressing based on duck eggs. The flavours worked really well together and I found myself eating every last scrap of it.

This excellent starter, coupled with the homemade breads on the table -- which were really good -- made me think that the chef here was a master of his trade. For me, bread is a staple of the table; I like it throughout the meal, not just with starters, and when bread is freshly made and made well, it's an important part of the meal. Both the white and the brown bread had a soft, open crumb and a good crust -- in short, real bread of the kind you don't encounter as often as you should.

My main course arrived on a slate and, despite my reservations about this particular form of platter, the dish looked great. On one side, was a small round of rump, cooked pink; in the middle, a tian of shoulder that had been shredded and formed into shape; on the right, a tiny black lidded pot that contained a tagine of lamb and chick peas, and resting against that, a well-trimmed roasted rib.

Dishes like this work if all the elements work, and in this case they did. Each part of the dish was expertly done and I enjoyed each and every bit of the lamb.

Up to this point I had been lunching alone, but before the desserts I was joined by Jackie Daly and her father Billy, who between them set up the organic label, Bunalun. I was happy to tell them that I use their organic tomato passata whenever I can for my tomato sauces.

We had two desserts between us -- a chocolate fondant with Champagne jelly and a mix of ice creams and sorbets. All very good, but the raspberry sorbet got the prize as the best of them.

We chatted for a while longer over coffees and then it was time to drive back to Dublin. It's not quite the trek it used to be as new bits of motorway have been opened, I was back in Dublin in four-and-a-half hours.

Chapter 40 does good food. I was happy to pay a bill of €61.40.

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