PART I: I once gave my heart to a woman from Waterford but all that remains of that love, decades later, is a lingering grá for her homeplace, writes Joe McNamee.
I also have several very good friends from the Deise tribe, all sharing a trait I also observe more generally amongst their county compatriots, a tendency to avoid ‘rooftops’ and ‘shouting’ when it comes to promoting their home turf or, indeed, self-promotion of any stripe, a modesty even more pronounced when you consider their location next door to the self-ordained Real Capital of Ireland.
True, the Rebel County was once Ireland’s original Garden of Eden but hardly a wet week now goes by without some new declaration of epicurean supremacy from yet another corner of the country. Not so in Waterford. Though the county’s own food scene is nigh unrecognisable from 25 years ago — save excellent evangelising by Dungarvan-based West Waterford Festival of Food and the city-based Harvest Festival — Waterford still undersells its wonderful larder.
Let me oblige on behalf of my downplaying Deise cousins with an off-the-cuff selection: Comeragh Mountain Lamb; Dungarvan Brewing Company; Metalman Brewing; Seagull Bakery; Barron’s Bakery; Walsh’s Bakehouse; Cheeses, from Knockanore and Knockalara; exquisite Harty’s Oysters; and possibly Ireland’s finest independent distillers, Blackwater Distillery. I’d travel to the moon for that particular ‘menu’; a lightning raid from Cork, 48 hours in the Deise capital to put on the nosebag, is a no-brainer.
La Daughter and I enjoy our early evening stroll through town but bracing weather means we relish the warmth, literal and metaphorical, in Bodega, a relaxed, rustic space, a-twinkling with fairy lights.
When our party is complete, we set about ordering. Advertised Atlantic Prawns are unavailable, Tiger Prawns instead substituting in an adapted Pil Pil, traditional chilli, garlic and parsley supplemented with lemon and butter. Flavours are good but I’d prefer the infinitely superior tastes and textures of an Irish prawn.
Decent Salt Cod Fishcakes are deepfried, crisp coating yielding to a piping hot potato-fish interior, all served with a sweet/sour pepperonata, fresh salad leaves and a rich chorizo aioli.
While our party’s youth wing cavort happily on the lower slopes of a keenly priced children’s menu, No 2 Son and his own Deise comrade, The Judge’s firstborn, order from the adult menu with a giddy disdain for parental wallets and their general wellbeing: No 2 Son’s Apple Market Burger is a flavoursome patty with fine crisp fries on the side; The Judge’s firstborn opts for a stripped-down sirloin steak; shorn of all sauces or sides, fine meat still excels.
When did I last order chicken as a main course in an Irish restaurant? Frankly, I’d struggle to answer but am pretty certain I was still in short trousers. In France, chicken remains a premium item on many menus (especially when it is a superb poulet de Bresse) but Irish consumers have become so used to the downgrading of chicken, in terms of price and quality, that it no longer squares with our notion of a ‘posh meal out’.
I don’t buy cheap chicken but am never entirely sure if all restaurants do similar so it must be a certain demob delirium, a holiday fever, that has me breaking with habit — and, boy, am I glad that I do! Butler’s Roast Chicken breast is succulent, tender, underpinned by sweet, earthy Jerusalem artichokes with spinach, in an umami-rich tarragon and bacon gravy — a wedge of creamy Dauphinoise potato crowns perfectly a sublimely comforting dish.
Unlike his ascetic firstborn, The Judge welcomes all the trimmings with his excellent rib eye steak: verdant herbed garlic butter, airy, crisp onion rings, and fries. A spicy and supple Fleurie (Domaine de la Presle 2014, €29.50) works well with both dishes.
My Heart’s Delight’s Panfried Fillet of Turbot is perfectly cooked but accompanying purple carrot puree is too blandly sweet to offer sufficient contrast, perhaps better suited to one of the steaks.
Desserts, naturally, considering the age profile of our party, feature ice cream and chocolate while a Crème Brulee stands out from the adult menu.
Even the odd stutter — with service and on the plate — is easily glossed over on such a convivial night, our evening in Bodega proving that good company, a pleasant setting and some decent food can often outshine a galaxy of Michelin stars — in Waterford, at least.
€252.30 (for three adults and four children, includes cocktails)
Monday to Saturday, Lunch, 12pm- 5pm; Dinner, 5pm-10pm
- Bodega, 54, John Street, Waterford, 051-844177; bodegawaterford.com
- Part II will be published on March 17