Malarkey 40 New Street,Killarney, Co Kerry.
Tel: 064-6622566; www.malarkey.ie
Though the Killarney tourism sector has been at it for the bones of 150 years or more, operating with an innate skill and efficiency that is compelling to observe, its food offering has tended to play it safe in the teeth of a largely conservative visiting clientele, top-heavy with ageing Americans.
Change is afoot, not least in some of the bigger hotel kitchens — a recent fine dinner at the Lake Hotel courtesy of talented head chef Noel Enright being a case in point — part of a wider acceptance by hoteliers that diners are no longer prepared to settle for a heaped carvery plate, with the ‘tricolour’ of overcooked veg (green, white and carrots) on the side.
However, the arrival to town of Seamus O’Connell, one of the great iconoclasts of Irish dining for the last 30 years, is change of an entirely different order.
I confess I’m still kicking my own jaw along the footpath to where it fell like a stone when I heard he was relocating from The Ivory Tower, his quirky Leeside lair of the last 25 years, to an entirely different ‘playing field’ in the Kingdom — Malarkey, on the site of the former Chapter 40.
I suspect even O’Connell himself is still marvelling at the mischievous cosmic forces that have seen him fetch up in this swish, modern, two-story venue on New Street, delivering, in his words, an ‘Irish menu’ to US tourists and a ‘fusion menu’ to Irish diners. Then again, if ever a chef took the ‘road less travelled’, it is he.
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We start with ‘small plates’, sufficiently generous that two would suffice for a decent dinner. No 2 Son’s Salad of warm duck confit with pineapple kimchi encapsulates O’Connell’s ‘fusion’ in a single dish and also reminds how far ahead of the posse he has always operated; these fermented Korean-style condiments may be the current trend-du-jour, but have featured regularly on his menus since the early ’90s.
This one is extraordinary, salty, honeyed sweetness, tart effervescence on the tongue, it partners crisp, savoury duck with consummate perfection.
A rather ‘Oirish’ version of Crubeens with smokey onion and poitín puree — is very much from the ‘American’ menu and the breaded, crisp-fried, funky meat could use further emollience and acidity, but a French peasant classic, nutty buckwheat crepes and silky wild mushrooms (mostly chanterelles), spinach, wild garlic, is exquisite and comforting.
We move on to ‘big plates’. Current Wife’s Lobster is an ecstasy of rich, buttery, marine flavours cut by dense, sharp pesto Rosso mayonnaise. Famine chips —polenta ‘chips’, dyed black with squid ink, fried — are both criminally addictive and an allusion to the importation of corn as famine relief in the 1840s.
I have Barry’s Tea smoked Duck, three ways, with goose-berry port & ginger. In the Age of the Tweezer, of ‘Instagrammable’ dishes plated up with anal precision, O’Connell’s delivery is deceptively bawdy, an earthy old-school ‘dinner’ with an abundance of vegetables (here, tender-stem broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, onions, green beans, and potato) but those vegetables are often‘finished’ with one of his mercurial stocks, a final braising in a pan just used for the main ingredient, harmonising flavour across the spectrum. His game-cooking iselemental — sweet, tender breast, nutty, chewy gizzards.
No 2 Son has a tri-tip steak, Macroom butcher Micheal Twomey’s truly exceptional Waygu beef cooked superbly with raspberry and hazelnut sauce; he cleans the plate all the way through to the maker’s mark underneath.
Desserts carry similar heft: luscious, potent ice creams (toffee apple, oat and hazel, smoked treacle) enrapture, while a novel crispy brown bread & butter pudding wears a yuletide spicing; golden chocolate and carrot cheesecake, with walnut, bay and honey ice cream, is a meal in itself.
O’Connell’s ‘fusion’ bears little resemblance to the anaemic faux-Asian faffing around of almost two decades ago; this is of an entirely different order, visceral, even sanguinary cuisine.
Big booming flavours are crowned with sometimes angular, always original, grace notes but, equally, it is fine, comforting fare.
Once the overlong menu gets a planned pruning — ideally, ditching the American/Irish schtick for greater clarity of delivery — and a local audience begins to build, the next stage of O’Connell’s career should take flight and he can start earning the keys to the Kingdom.