Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Zaks, Waterford
It was yet another food festival that got me to Waterford, where the Harvest Festival took place. It was a week- long festival of all things food and drink, with a bewildering variety of events every day. I was there specifically to talk about wine and I shared the talk with Eamonn McEneaney, an expert on the history of Waterford.
I learned some surprising facts from Eamonn, not least that Waterford had, and held on to, a monopoly on the Irish wine trade for over 500 years.
We were in the recently renovated and restored Choristers' Hall, which has one of Ireland's oldest wine vaults -- so, apart from being a very attractive venue, it was also perfect for a talk on wine.
The hall is part of Waterford's Medieval Museum, which is really worth a visit.
After our talk was over, I went with a few of the festival organisers across the river to the Hotel Athenaeum for dinner in their restaurant, Zaks.
Part of the hotel's official address is 'Christendom', which I rather liked, but the oddest piece of topographical trivia I can tell you is that the main house of The Athenaeum is in Co Kilkenny, while the driveway and the gardens are in Co Waterford.
When you drive up to The Athenaeum, you can easily see which part of the building is the old house and which part is the new extension, because there's a striking glass visual break between the two.
The dining room was also an extension to the original house, built along its entire length at the back, which means you have good views from the dining room over the river to the city's south quays and Reginald's Tower.
There were two menus to choose from. An à la carte and a table d'hote menu, which offered three courses plus coffee or tea for €25. The Athenaeum is a four-star hotel, so I was surprised at the good value of the table d'hôte.
This surprise increased as I looked down the wine list. So often, wine lists include a few wines in the early twenties price bracket, and then the wines climb very briskly to €40 and more.
It happens most frequently on hotel wine lists, but here I found myself looking down a fair-sized list where the vast majority of the wines were priced in the early twenties.
The first thing we did was select the wines. For the red, we picked Belnero Toscana IGT from Banfi, which was priced at €38 and a white from Cote de Rhone called 'Esprit', which was priced at €29.
Both wines were of a much better quality than you'd usually get from similarly priced wines on your average hotel wine list, because of the modest mark-up.
The meal began with good homemade breads, still hot from the oven, which came to the table along with the menus.
The à la carte read well: there was a wild-mushroom ravioli with a white-truffle broth, a spring roll of slow-braised lamb, a tasting plate of salmon, a smoked ham hock terrine and Portuguese-style crab cakes.
A granita was on offer for a middle course, then a trio of pork, white sole on the bone, a roasted ballotine of chicken, a sirloin steak, slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, and an asparagus and fennel risotto.
All the meats had credited suppliers, which is always nice to see. I was tempted by the slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, but eventually decided to have lamb spring roll as a starter, and then followed that with the trio of pork.
My starter turned out to be very good. The leg of lamb had been braised and then shredded, and this was used to fill the spring rolls. I thought the flavouring was well done and the dish was served with a ratatouille, which accompanied it well.
I got a taste of the granita, which was made with lemon and juniper, and which had a crisp, refreshing taste -- exactly as it ought.
The main course gave me a selection of pork cuts -- a small pan-fried fillet, a square of slow-cooked belly and a crispy pork rillette, which was served on a bed of lightly cooked cabbage.
The dish was finished with glazed grapes, which I thought was a nice touch, and there was a jus made from Muscat, which I thought went very well with the pork.
I'd eaten well, but I was tempted to try the Guinness creme brulee for a dessert. It almost looked like a bowl of Guinness that has set, and the slight bitterness of the porter gave an interesting edge to the custard.
For once, the bill didn't come to me, but if I had had to pay my share it would have come to about €35 for three courses, which I thought was great value, considering the quality of the cooking and the pleasant surroundings of the dining room.
The next day, after a comfortable night's sleep in a full tester bed, I left The Athenaeum and went to explore Waterford's town centre. I had quick lunch in Harlequin, a small café that's run by a young Italian with plenty of enthusiasm.
I had a Caprese salad, made with good, fresh buffalo mozzarella and some almost ripe tomatoes -- definitely one of the better ones I've had in Ireland -- and I followed it with a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese.
A good espresso to finish and a glass of the house white, a Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, brought my bill to €26.20. I left Waterford a happy man.