Paolo Tullio: In praise of pigeon
Toddies at The Bulman Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork Tel: 021 477 2131 www.thebulman.com
For as long as I can remember, Kinsale has been known for its restaurants.
It's also true that as the rest of the country became increasingly interested in gastronomy over the past few decades, Kinsale's offerings started to look a little stale.
But, like any movement in fashion, things change constantly and, for the past few years, Kinsale has seemed to be back on song. It's just had the sailing clippers in town, which brought it a lot of publicity, and its restaurants are once again garnering prizes and awards.
I've been there a couple of times in the past few years and I've enjoyed meals in The Man Friday and Fishy Fishy. This week I was back again to eat in The Bulman, a gastropub in Summercove, with three fellow diners — Robert Shaw, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Noel Kelly — for a boy's night out.
This was my first drive on the newly opened motorway which has finally connected Ireland's two largest cities — at least we have that to show for all the billions wasted. I only wish somebody could explain to me why we're the only country in the world that has decided you don't need service stations on motorways.
We stayed in the excellent Blue Haven Hotel in the centre of Kinsale, which is where I stayed when reviewing The Man Friday. This meant that for once I could enjoy a review meal with wine — of which more later.
We arrived at The Bulman around 9pm, just as a band was starting to play some very good music downstairs in the bar. As you'd expect of a place that's virtually on the sea, there was a strong nautical theme to the décor. We were shown to our table upstairs, where Toddies dining room is, and we sat overlooking the sea on a very grey and dull evening.
There are two menus: an à la carte and a set menu. The set menu, an early bird, offered three starters, three main courses and two desserts; you could have any two courses for €24.95 or three for €27.95. The à la carte has an unusual feature: nearly every one of the 13 dishes can be had as either a starter or a main course.
The wine list is quite short — 11 whites, eight reds and a sprinkling of rosés, dessert wines and sparklers. Of the wines, roughly half are less than €30 and half are less than €40, which is well balanced. Despite its shortness, a couple of good wines were listed: the Martin Códax Albariño, a decent Mâcon-Lugny and a Vernaccia. Among the reds was Chat-en-Oeuf from the Languedoc, a ghastly pun that reminded me of the Australian red Goats do Roam.
We drank a really fine Chablis. For the starters Robert ordered the carpaccio, which he'd never had before; Noel and Ciaran both ordered the fish cakes, and I had the Dromoland Estate pigeon, clearly a classier bird than the pigeons living rough in woodland.
I have to say that my previous experience with fish cakes has rarely been good — invariably I find them dry and uninteresting. The taste I got from Noel’s surprised me; the fish cake was nicely flavoured and had retained enough moisture not to dry out my mouth. In short, they were exactly as they should have been.
The beef carpaccio was also well done, but it didn't have the classic topping of drizzled thin mayonnaise — instead it came with rocket and Parmesan shavings, drizzled with olive oil. Very good it was too, but not as Arrigo Cipriani would serve it.
My pigeon breast was as perfect as any that I've eaten. It was cooked exactly right — nicely browned on the outside, but still undercooked enough to be tender. I'm convinced that people have been put off pigeon breast because they've been presented with an overcooked version. Eat it done as it was here and you'd be a convert.
Before the main courses arrived we picked on some very good rolls that were on the table, both white and brown. And then the main event arrived: two lobster risottos, one John Dory and the tuna sashimi for me.
The lobster risotto is The Bulman's signature dish, and both Noel and Ciaran, who ordered it, had eaten it before. Ever the experimenter, Robert ordered the fillets of John Dory on the simple basis that he'd never had it before — a good reason, if you ask me.
A long time ago I became convinced that the Japanese have it right when it comes to sashimi. If you have very fresh, high-grade tuna, you mustn’t spoil it by cooking it. Eat it raw and it's exceptional. It had been offered to me seared, but I'd asked for it raw.
After I'd tasted the lobster risotto I could see why this was the signature dish — it really was very good, with all the tastes of the sea permeating the well-cooked rice. Robert too was enjoying his first taste of John Dory, and, I'll admit, I was waxing evangelistic about my dish, trying to persuade my fellow diners to try raw tuna.
My only small niggle about our main courses was that the vegetable accompaniments were a little unimaginative, but, other than that, the food was superb.
Not one of us was tempted by a dessert; we moved on directly to coffees and the espressos were good. We sat on until late, enjoying the company, the chat, the craic and, above all the wine.
I'm actually ashamed of how much wine we drank, so I'll only tell you how much we spent on the food — although I’ll admit that we had more than one bottle of wine. The cost of our food was €149.
Value for money 7/10
On a budget
The early-bird menu is the budget choice. Starters were grilled chicken with peanut sauce, a soup of the day, and a goat’s-cheese fritter. Mains were pan-seared rib-eye steak, a mozzarella and tomato tartlet, and the catch of the day. Desserts were lemon and vanilla sorbet, and sticky toffee pudding. Two courses for €24.95, three for €27.95.
On a blowout
You could start with nine oysters, which would cost you €18.50, then have the signature lobster risotto at €29.50 and accompany that with a bottle of Louis Roederer’s vintage brut Champagne at €140.