Review: Barrows Keep - 'the salad is a textbook exercise in balance and texture'
Barrows Keep, The Quay, Tinnahinch, Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny (059) 972 5742, barrowskeep.com
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the lovely village of Graiguenamanagh in Kilkenny is looking mighty fine, with Duiske Abbey, the largest of the medieval Cistercian monasteries, its focal point, surrounded by cut-stone buildings, restrained shop-fronts and pubs that entice quietly. On the River Barrow, kayakers paddle and wetsuit-clad lads mess about under the seven-arched bridge. Cyclists pass through on a race, and a host of boats, including impossibly photogenic barges that look like the Sylvanian ones that my children had when they were little, their decks populated with anthropomorphic rabbits, hedgehogs and squirrels. Along the river's banks anglers wait patiently and walkers head downriver towards the monastic settlement at St Mullin's; it is all quite idyllic.
At The Arch in Churchtown and Stanley's in Dublin city centre, which he ran with his brother, Patrick (now the manager of Wilde in the Westbury), chef Stephen McArdle had a loyal following, but the dining scene in the capital is a fickle one, rents are punishing and there is always somewhere new to try, so eventually the brothers called it a day.
Stephen McArdle de-camped to Graiguenamanagh last year and opened Barrows Keep (the missing apostrophe bothers the grammar nerd in me) seven months ago, on what some insist is actually the Carlow side of the river, just over the bridge. Outside there are simple tables geared towards customers wanting coffees and glasses of wine; there is a barbecue offering too, and O'Hara's on tap.
The premises was formerly home to a Chinese restaurant and it has had a stylish makeover on a budget. Inside it is all dark blue paint and smart lighting, the effect diminished somewhat by art of the Sunday painter variety, and paper napkins. I know that laundered napkins are a pain for restaurants, but the lack of them jars when the table cloths are linen.
Because of the terrible spring weather, the hungry gap - the period between the end of winter vegetables and the start of the spring ones - has gone on longer and later than usual this year, and some of the dishes on McArdle's menu read more wintry than we might have hoped, given the sunny day, but evidence of a laudable commitment to seasonality. The menu notes that "sourcing is focused on local produce, as organic as possible" and you can't argue with that.
Smoked potato soup with beef daube and wild garlic might be more suited to a frosty night, but it's a terrific dish nonetheless, full of bold flavour and confidence. Naturally sweet Kilmore Quay crab combines with orange trout caviar from Goatsbridge down the road in Thomastown, sweetcorn, whipped avocado and tiny croutons in a salad that is a visual delight and a textbook exercise in balance and texture. 'Lightly cured' organic salmon with beetroot and carrot salad would have been better sliced rather than served in a single hefty tranche, and we'd have preferred a more assertive cure.
Breagagh Valley free-range sausages - a combination of beef and pork, properly meaty - are smoked and delicious, served with mustard mash and choucroute. Again, it feels like a dish for a colder day, but it's excellent nonetheless.
A sort of risotto of spelt with violet artichoke, white onion and sweet pickled onion topped with calçots feels seasonally on the money, evidence of a chef committed to putting as much thought into the (dreaded words) 'vegetarian option' as to those for omnivores.
The third main course - fillet of cod, with petits pois à la française and chervil butter - is impeccable, served with a buttery pomme purée that hints at McArdle's classical French training.
So far, our food has been top notch, but the desserts are a disappointment. Meringue roulade with macerated berries, for instance, is a solid mass of sweetened egg white, with no discernible crunch at all. The berries are fine.
A dish described as 'rhubarb, mascarpone, pine nuts and ginger' lacks finesse both visually and on the palate; in essence, it's a crude-looking, too-big portion of indifferent cheesecake topped with an unrefined jelly.
At Stanley's, sommelier Morgan Vanderkamer was an early adopter of the natural and biodynamic wines that you'll find on every trendy restaurant list these days, and her selection at Barrows Keep is intriguing, one that we would have liked to explore more assiduously had we not been driving. As it was, a glass of Vouvray works well with the crab, as does the Muhr Grüner Veltliner 2013 from Carnuntum, Austria, with the cod.
Our bill for lunch for three, including two glasses of wine, two bottles of San Pellegrino, a couple of soft drinks and a coffee comes to €121.85 before service.
At the RAI awards last week, Barrows Keep was named Best Newcomer in Leinster, and a new, more summery menu has been introduced since our visit earlier this month. Currently, the restaurant opens from Thursday to Sunday, but this may change during the summer and on bank holiday weekends.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The two-course lunch costs €25.
ON A BLOW-OUT
In the evening there's an à la carte menu. If you started with foie gras mi-cuit, smoked sausage, choucroute and brioche, followed with pan-roast John Dory, purple sprouting broccoli and red pepper escabeche, and finished with dark chocolate ganache, chocolate mousse and banana fudge, the bill would come to €100 for two before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
High-calibre cooking by the river.
THE LOW POINT
Desserts are not up to the standard of the rest of the food.