Kerry: Chic Zuni a delight

Zuni, 26 Patrick Street, Kilkenny; Tel: 056-7723999; zuni.ie

GIVEN the smorgasbord of ingredients at our disposal, it’s amazing how many Irish restaurants stick to same-o, same-o menu formulas. It’s nosebag-by-numbers, ticking off the same takes on steak, chicken and fish with dispiriting familiarity.

Not Zuni. Maria Raftery’s menus at this chic Kilkenny space are anything but predictable. There’s always a playful twist, an experimental note or a crafty, kooky flourish.

Starters might include pistachio-crumbed goats cheese bonbons with roasted hazelnut aioli, for example — or a chilli chicken salad with parsnip and sweet potato chips. A duck breast is paired with Amaretti crumble. Fish ’n’ chips from the ‘Mini Me’ menu arrive with a face squirted in ketchup — giving a giggle, and controlling kids’ access to the red stuff. Over several visits, I’ve had desserts ranging from a coconut brûlée to tiramisu served in a plant pot with chocolate soil.

Raftery also makes a point of using local ingredients. You’ll find Goatsbridge trout mixed into the scotch eggs, or whipped Knockdrinna goats cheese topping off a tart tatin. All of which are reasons why, although Campagne is Kilkenny’s go-to fine dining restaurant, it’s Zuni to which I return again and again.

The room, I can take or leave. An open kitchen looks out into an upmarket box splashed with white linen, voile curtains, leather chairs and recessed wine racks. But the combination of spirited food, a decent spread of pricing, and confident service from staff that have stayed the course, fill it out very nicely indeed.

Of the starters, the best dish on our latest visit is a medley of seafood. Served on a black slate crisscrossed with wasabi mayo and avocado puree, there’s a sharp, squishy twist of pickled herring, a rare square of tuna topped with fresh ginger, a salmon pate and a prawn cocktail, dotted with little orange orbs of roe.

Everybody dips into it — always a good sign.

I shoot for a risotto, which intrigues because of its combinations of duck confit, caramelised onion and pear. It’s typically untypical, and maybe a little too big and heavy a portion for a starter, but the combinations of buttery duck and fruity pear come together well in the creamy mix.

Highlights from the main courses include pan-fried hake with roast cauliflower and curried raisin puree. It’s a lovely piece of fish, with a dusting of curry giving way to crispy skin, which in turn gives way to juicy whiteness underneath. On a previous visit, we were equally impressed with Raftery’s deft handling of turbot.

Elsewhere, melt-in-the-mouth venison was paired with blackberry jus, and pan-fried scallops excellently executed: tangy on the surface, soft and fleshy inside.

All three of these dishes, however, suffered through overcrowding of the plates. Smaller portions and simpler arrangements would work better in showcasing Raftery’s ebullient talent, I think. Presentation of that delicious hake would have been punchier if it didn’t compete with such a large streak of puree, such a generous slice of cauliflower, such a big dollop of mash, such a whack of horseradish.

Whilst the flavours paired nicely, the scallops were also lost amongst the sheer volume of breaded squid, wasabi mayo and salad of beetroot, carrot, pickled ginger and mandarin sharing the plate. The stack toppled over when it hit the table. Most of Raftery’s hunches work. But I’d prefer a little more cuisine, and a little less carvery.

In Zuni’s defence, for every less-is-more fusspot like me, there’s got to be dozens of regulars looking for a completely different experience. During our 6pm sitting on Saturday, the restaurant was catering for couples, families and a brood of hen parties. It can’t be easy combining creativity — which pours out of Raftery at her best — with the bottom line of a hotel restaurant on its busiest night.

For dessert, don’t look past the Lemon Meringue Alaska. It’s a lovely, sticky end to the evening.

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