Paolo Tullio: A hotspot for value
It's been a couple of years since I was last in Kildare, so when I heard about a new Indian restaurant there, Spice, I knew it was time for a repeat visit. It's a very beautiful drive from where I live to Kildare and it was a sunny evening, so I called my friend and neighbour Mike Judd, found he was free, and the two of us set off for the plains of Kildare.
The sun was still shining as we took the road to Glendalough, then over the Wicklow Gap past Turlough Hill, then downhill to Hollywood.
Years ago, I used to make a point of sending postcards from the post office in Hollywood, but I'm all grown up now and don't do it any more. Instead, I got Michael to count the ramps on our trip, starting with the four in Hollywood.
It's cross-country next, towards Ardenode Stud, but not before encountering five savage ramps just off the N81. It's stud country on this road: you get Ardenode Stud, then the immaculately kept hedges of Ragusa Stud and its stunning beeches before you reach Brannockstown.
I pointed out the little church to Michael that used to have a van converted into a small chapel, complete with steeple, parked outside.
Only two ramps here before we reached Kilcullen, where you get another four. Then over to The Curragh, passing the last four ramps, before turning for Kildare town.
Spice turned out to be easily found. We parked in the town centre and found it opposite Silken Thomas on the first floor. We stopped for a moment at the bottom of the stairs to read the menu. "Mid-week Special," it read, "dinner for two with bottle of wine €40". We read it twice, just to be sure, then went upstairs.
A pleasing smell of spices and a charming lady greeted us and she showed us to a table near the window overlooking the road. "Remember when you had to pass this point to go just about anywhere?" asked Michael. "Only too well," I replied, "and the endless tailbacks." If nothing else, at least we've got the new motorways to show for the boom years.
She gave us two menus: the mid-week special menu and the à la carte. I started looking through the à la carte; the starters were all between €7 and €9 and the main courses all less than €20, including a 10oz rib-eye for €19.95.
I was trying to choose from some interesting-looking dishes when Michael said, "Look, why don't we just go for the mid-week special? I mean, it's a no-brainer. Anyway, loads of the à la carte dishes are on the special menu anyway."
Of course he was right; how could we resist what is probably the best-value meal deal in the country?
That decision also meant that looking down the wine list became a hypothetical exercise, since the mid-week deal meant we got a bottle of the house wine. Still, curiosity made me look. It's a straightforward list of about two dozen wines, all fairly priced, and the house wines were priced at €17.95.
We got the red, a perfectly acceptable Chilean Merlot, but, despite this, I prefer beer with Asian food, so I got a bottle of Cobra beer and left the wine to Michael.
The set menu had quite a few starter choices, but the last one on the list was the platter for two, with a taste of different starters, so we ordered that. Then, for the main courses, Michael ordered a traditional south Indian prawn curry, which he asked for 'hot', and I ordered a lamb Jalfrezzi, a hot and sour dish with ginger, tomato, garlic, peppers and onion.
The starter platter looked good when it arrived, and had plenty on it. A dish of dipping sauce came surrounded with onion bhajis, mini corn cobs in batter, curried potatoes, pieces of chicken tikka and Amritsar prawns. All good, honest fare and very tasty.
The main courses arrived along with a bowl of scented rice. The first thing I did was taste Michael's curry, just to see how hot hot was. It turned out to be hot but not fiery, well within both his and my range. The colour of Michael's dish was very appealing, a deep fiery red.
The colour of my dish was more of a muddy brown. It didn't look as good, but it tasted every bit as good. In fact, both of these dishes had a good balance of flavours and spices.
Our starters and our main courses were quite enough food to assuage our appetites, so we ate no more. We finished up with an espresso for me and a decaf for Michael, which brought our bill to €56.40, probably the least I've spent on dinner in the past 10 years. Astonishing value.
In a way, we didn't really get to try out what the kitchen in Spice is capable of, since by its nature a menu at this price can't possibly be the best of what the kitchen can offer. But it would be equally true to say that if they can, as they did, produce a better than average meal at a knock-down price, it's a fair bet that the à la carte menu would produce some very good food indeed.
I enjoyed our trip to Spice; the welcome was warm, the service was friendly and professional and the room was comfortably furnished. If anyone ever tells you that Irish restaurants are a rip-off, send them to Spice in Kildare town.