Ideally, any newly-opened restaurant should hit its marks from day one; surely it shortchanges customers to do otherwise? That said, I have always thought it only fair to allow a grace period for ‘bedding in’ before reviewing any new arrival. So why, oh why, am I reviewing Restaurant Chestnut on its opening night? asks Joe McNamee.
Restaurant Chestnut occupies The Chestnut Tree, formerly an old-school country pub, currently seating a maximum of 18 diners. With scant budget, proprietors/partners Rob Krawczyk (chef) and Elaine Fleming (front-of-house) make a virtue of necessity, paring it back to raw elements, in the process, creating a zen-like tranquility. Low wood-panelled ceilings are off-white; bare walls, a deep, stilling green, somewhere between olive and moss, almost a living, breathing organism under soft lighting.
Raised in nearby Dereenatra, this is something of a homecoming for Krawczyk, son of Frank, one of Ireland’s original and best charcutiers. Krawczyk ‘junior’ made his name as an award-winning chef, first in the late, lamented Chop House, in Lismore, and subsequently in Tankardstown House, in Co Meath. Last year, he tested local waters with a summer residency in Baltimore’s Glebe Gardens.
Despite national clamour, anticipating this opening, we are still clueless as to which ‘Chef Krawczyk’ we will get: the ‘loaves-and-fishes’ generosity of the Chop House’s hearty, traditional dishes; or last year’s Glebe fare, excellent, but of such minute portions, The Cat’s Pyjamas took to the toaster later that night to fill a still-yawning chasm in her belly.
We kick off with two tasters: creamy Smoked Mackerel on crispbread with pickle and roe; and plump juicy mussels with tangy-sweet cucumber and samphire. Both are sound opening gambits, though mussels are quite overwhelmed by the use of robust olive oil rather than a more neutral alternative in an accompanying emulsion.
A buttery-browned scallop with tender white heart, finds its sweetness echoed in earthy sugars of silken parsnip puree; pan-wilted wild garlic and fennel pollen contrast and lift. Chlorophyll and charcuterie collide as a crunchy stalk of local new season asparagus is draped in a gossamer shaving of ham fat, topped with pennywort. These days, I wonder if the whole mid-meal sorbet thing has had its day but a Gin, Cucumber, Elderflower Fizz is astringently cleansing, resetting the palate for a sublimely cooked piece of gunard, served with sautéed fennel bulb.
Hogget often carries greater depth of flavour than younger lamb but demands more attention in the cooking. Krawczyk delivers impossibly tender pink meat you could slice with a knife’s handle let alone blade, while depth of flavour plumbs fathoms, enhanced by cauliflower and an umami-rich jus. It is my standout dish of the night.
Apple and Tapioca (a pre-dessert?) is ‘cheffy’ yet simple: thin ribbons of crisp apple, ‘tapioca’ of apple puree with pearly ‘grains’ of dried yoghurt and commendable restraint with the sugar spoon. Several iterations of rhubarb work well with creamed cheese, pistachios and more of those yoghurt pearls.
The overall offering, as it turns out, is perfectly poised between the surfeit of his Chop House days and the rather more Spartan Glebe residency fare and, though carbs are still in the minority (except at Sunday lunch), I am perfectly full, suggesting my call for a cheeseboard is as much about prolonging the evening as filling any gaps in the belly. As it turns out, this cheeseboard tells you everything you need to know about Krawczyk’s attention to the finer details.
Too many establishments seem to think stocking a selection of the usual Irish Farmhouse suspects is sufficient, never bothering to maximise their expenditure through proper husbandry, yet the flavours and textures of fine cheese served under optimal conditions exist in a realm beyond mere cooking — all the chef has to do is recognise and respect its inherent quality. Tonight’s trio (‘spicy’ Hegarty’s Cheddar, nutty, sweet Young Buck and creamy, ripe Durrus) comprise the best restaurant cheeseboard I have ever had.
Truth be told, I had no intention of reviewing Restaurant Chestnut. I happened to be staying nearby and it sounded like a delightful opportunity to eat Krawczyk’s food while sharing an evening with several good friends but on finishing, I asked myself, ‘how can I not review such a wonderful meal?’
Best of all, Restaurant Chestnut will only get better and better — west Cork is so much the richer for its arrival.
€65 pp for the tasting menu, including tea/coffee
Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday, 6pm-9.30pm; Sunday Lunch, 12pm-4pm
Restaurant Chestnut, The Chestnut Tree, Stabawl Hill, Ballydehob, Co Cork.
Tel: 028-25766; www.restaurantchestnutwestcork.ie