To the casual observer, Kilkenny’s food scene might be coloured largely by crowd-pleasing party fare: chicken wings for the weekenders and steaks for the stags.
The truth is that the Marble City’s restaurants are much more varied and colourful than that. Kilkenny has long been noted as a centre of excellence for Irish design, but is finally getting due recognition as a prime foodie destination too. And after a muted two years on account of you-know-what, its local food producers and restaurateurs are more than ready to put on a good show for the coming tourist season.
This week marks the second annual Taste Kilkenny Restaurant Week, during which 30 of the city’s best-known spots are making offers on their signature dishes. The idea is to support the industry by encouraging people to eat out, and it’s a great opportunity to try established favourites like Zuni, Rinuccini’s, Paris Texas and Petronella’s, as well as dining spots in high-end hotels like Mount Juliet, Lyrath or Butler House.
I visited Kilkenny last weekend with a husband and fairly exacting three-year-old in tow – we were looking for a particular culinary sweet spot, somewhere between fine dining and hearty pub fare. Happily, there are several restaurants in Kilkenny that tick all the right boxes; family-friendly, offering local produce for different budgets.
The Pembroke Hotel (11 Patrick Street) is small but perfectly formed, sitting in a central position, near Kilkenny Castle, High Street and Rose Inn Street. Its rooms and décor are clean and simple, if nothing out of the ordinary for a four-star hotel. Yet the Pembroke has a new ace in its pack in the shape of new Executive Chef Ken Harker, who previously helped steer Mount Juliet’s Lady Helen restaurant to Michelin-star glory.
Harker and his team are bringing the Pembroke’s restaurant, Statham’s, towards interesting new territory, and it certainly has the potential to become a must-do destination in its own right.
With its farm-to-fork approach, the Market Menu doffs a cap to at least half-a-dozen Irish food producers (among them Dizzy Farm, Ging Farm and Riversfield Farm), offering gems that aren’t often seen on hotel restaurant menus, from seaweed hollandaise to artichokes.
Its main menu, meanwhile, offers a handful of small and large plates. The lamb ragout, made with peas and feta and served with orecchiette pasta, is likely to make many purist Italians blanche, but was nevertheless excellent.
As for their (non-buffet) breakfast, the Pembroke seem to pride themselves on small extras, from serving up breakfast on Nicholas Mosse crockery to offering ‘power shots’ (a cucumber/fruit concoction). They were also more than happy to whip up off-menu porridge and compote for the three year-old.
Incidentally, if you’re in the market for a staycation with little kids in tow, there is plenty to do in Kilkenny, from the Castlecomer Discovery Park (above) and playground at Kilkenny Castle to the National Reptile Zoo and Jerpoint Park’s working farm.
Just down the road from the Pembroke Hotel, the Hibernian Hotel (1 Ormonde Street) is another four-star hotel that’s in the thick of the weekend action.
Its front-of-house bar/restaurant is a fairly lively spot, but the Brasserie, to the rear of the Georgian building, is much less hectic. Here, they specialise in what they call ‘Irish comfort’, offering a selection of steaks, burgers, wings, fish & chips. We had the Angus striploin and chicken supreme with chorizo gratin potatoes, served with a truly great selection of fresh seasonal vegetables; squash, turnip, purple carrots.
It’s perfect and plush comfort food (coming in at around €100 for two-and-a-half diners, with a bottle of wine), without the greasy fullness of pub grub. The staff were particularly accommodating to the three-year-old who, after two days of gallivanting across the city, was by then nearing the realm of the tearfully overtired.
Healthy lunches aren’t a problem, either. Cakeface Patisserie is a little off the main drag but definitely worth the ten-minute walk (16 Irishtown). The space is created mainly with burlap and brushed concrete, but they’ve definitely kept the frills for the food. Truly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more heavenly display of cakes elsewhere in the city. The Pink One is made with white chocolate, tarragon and blackcurrant mousse while the Salty Caramel Bomb is a malty delight.
Their sandwiches are sourdough doorstops, too. Think Coronation chicken, salami with spiced apple chutney and roasted mixed vegetables. Adding in the spiced potato and paprika soup, we left there full as ticks.
Cakeface, incidentally, boasts an intriguing origin story. It’s owned by husband-and-wife team Laura and Rory Gannon who met as strangers on the pastry course at Ballymaloe after a rethink in their respective professional careers, and finessed their training in London and France. Bucking the Covid trend, Cakeface have expanded in recent times by adding a shabby-chic outdoor dining area, a roastery and a cookery school.
It's been all change, too, for the Butler Gallery (John’s Quay) in recent times, after they moved to a new premises in 2019, into the 19th-century Evans House. They have recently installed outdoor seating (or more specifically, a number of glass pods designed for outdoor dining in possibly inclement weather), in the gallery garden.
The Muse Café, an airy and welcoming space, is a cut above typical art gallery cafés. Brunch-wise, the offerings are modern yet hearty: think Croque Monsieurs with fist-size chunks of ham, and rainbow-coloured Buddha bowls packed with superfoods and falafels. There’s definitely no skimping on the portions. As an added bonus, the Cloud Picker coffee hits the spot, and the vegan/vegetarian options are plentiful.
Taste Kilkenny Restaurant Week runs until February 27, and sees 30 participating restaurants showcase their menus and offer discounts on certain days. See visitkilkenny.ie for more details.
Among those 30 restaurants are Truffles, Petronella, Mountain View Kilkenny and the King’s Mill Restaurant. The latter, for instance, is offering a three-course meal for €29 per person. Rive Gauche at the Left Bank is offering a three-course meal with a glass of wine for €30 per person. Rinuccini’s Restaurant Week offer, available on Thursday February 24, is a five-course menu, with wine pairing, for €90 per person.
Prices for upcoming dates at the Pembroke Kilkenny Hotel, subject to availability, start from €149 B&B or €209 for B&B with dinner. pembrokekilkenny.com
Tanya was a guest of the hotel and Kilkenny Tourism.