Restaurant Review: No. 35 offers bijou dining down on Kenmare's main street

"it is a tiny little space, tables squirrelled away in nooks, crannies, and cubbyholes over two floors, yet the soft lighting of wooden floors, wall panelling, ceiling beams, and rugged grey stone walls lend an instant cosiness"
Restaurant Review: No. 35 offers bijou dining down on Kenmare's main street

Cosy comfort at Kenmare's No. 35 restaurant

  • No 35 Kenmare
  • 35 Main Street, Kenmare, Co Kerry
  • Tel: 064-6641559
  • Opening hours: Friday to Tuesday, 5pm to 9.30pm

AND so we return once more to Kenmare, or Neidín, as I have instead thought of it for decades since a Jimmy McCarthy song, a maudlin yet naggingly persistent melody made famous by Mary Black first ear-wormed its way into my head many decades ago. It wouldn’t have been my first choice on the jukebox, to put it politely, but in another youthful lifetime I worked as a roadie for the great Irish chanteuse and heard the song night after night after night after night … in the end, resistance proved futile.

I have been coming here since my teens, initially, ‘camping’ under starlight to attend the bacchanalian Cibeal Cincíse arts festivals, gradually elevating the standard of my lodgings upwards through the years, but the sense of anticipation remains the same, most especially if you eschew functional convenience of the main road and divert at Ballyvourney for an infinitely more elemental trek over the top of Coom.

It is a beautiful September evening: crisp, dry, autumnal and, buoyed by a splendid Negroni served up by Brian O’Connor across the road in John and Francis Brennan’s latest project, the newly refurbished Lansdowne Hotel, reimagined as a snazzy boutique hotel, all is right in the world, a welcome delusion on this currently crazy planet.

The word, ‘bijou’, was surely coined for No 35 because it is a tiny little space, tables squirrelled away in nooks, crannies, and cubbyholes over two floors, yet the soft lighting of wooden floors, wall panelling, ceiling beams, and rugged grey stone walls lend an instant cosiness, an all-embracing intimacy that has us rubbing our hands in gleeful anticipation, further heightened when the progeny bum a few bucks for takeaway instead and head back to the hotel room for quality time alone with their digital overlords.

Two starters jump out at us: Octopus, with Chickpeas, Chorizo and Piquillo Peppers and Beets, with Vanilla, Crozier Blue, Red Chard and Candied walnuts; we order both.

But I also order Saddleback Pork Sausage, Kimchi, Scallion, Coriander, for any pork offering in No 35 is especially unique. I generally don’t eat pork in restaurants because I don’t remotely care for the meat of industrially farmed pigs. From an ethical standpoint, their confined conditions are inhumane and, also, result in a poor finished product, the taste of which is grossly inferior to that of pigs reared properly in the outdoors.

There are other restaurants offering free-range pork, and though I am sometimes suspicious of the authenticity of its provenance, the pork in No 35 is particularly special, Dermot Brennan’s Kenmare Free Range Pork.

You see, Dermot Brennan is the owner of No 35, as well as its ‘mothership’ at the other end of town, another splendid four-star boutique hotel, Brook Lane. They are the only two restaurants in Ireland serving up their own free-range pork and, in my book, that alone is worth travelling for. A small herd of sows means a limited supply; when they run out, it is off the menu.

The octopus dish is very pleasant, tender meat, nutty pulses, sweet peppers, good textures and flavours all round; the beet dish is better again, a panoply of sugars, from the earthy tuber to vanilla and candied nuts and, arresting any descent in the sickly saccharine, salty-sweet Crozier Blue, always my preference over its more renowned lactic sibling, Cashel Blue. But the sausage (handmade by Dermot Brennan) is of a different order entirely, succulent, deeply flavoursome meat, just seasoned, carrying the sweet anise of fennel, tart kimchi and charred scallion adding contrasting crunch; simple yet quite superb.

Pork belly and lentils 
Pork belly and lentils 

SpouseGirl has pan-fried turbot for her main, caramelised in butter, tender flesh flaking away on the fork, served with fondant potato, spinach and pea puree, very nice indeed but I give it short shrift, all eyes on my pork belly, served with another of my most favourite ingredients, puy lentils; alongside, ‘jam’ of Granny Smith apples. The flavours are profound, plumbing depths ever beyond the reach of callow industrial pork though, one caveat, I’d have preferred more of the belly’s fat, for it always carries more natural flavour than any sauce or salsa can ever muster.

SpouseGirl has an excellent Crème Caramel, although accompanying compressed strawberry, good in its own right, throws a jarring tart note in an incompatible marriage with the lush set custard.

I’ve always trod warily around the issue of chocolate and fruit, especially pears, but Poire Belle Helene is an Escoffier classic so it would be churlish not to join the party on the plate that is poached pear, enamelled with flaked almonds, drizzled with chocolate salted caramel and served with good vanilla ice cream wearing a smashing sesame tuile. I’m still not entirely convinced by chocolate with pear but an entirely empty plate would suggest otherwise.

Poire Belle Helene
Poire Belle Helene

One faltering step in an otherwise confidently assured canter on the night is a seriously underperforming wine list, not a single bottle, red or white, capable of pairing well with the pork dishes, a cardinal sin when it such a crucial and unique element of chef Tony Schwarz’s fine offering. However, the current list is a victim of repeated lockdowns, withering on the vine, if you’ll pardon the pun, and is being, thankfully, resuscitated in the very immediate future.

Restaurant manager and maitre d’ Neil Hynes deserves to be singled out for special mention. A consummate pro of the old school (quite literally, as he is Cert-trained for a career in hospitality), he runs front of house immaculately, with speed, efficiency, and a keen eye for detail that is a credit to his training and experience, capped with effortless and easy wit and charm that is entirely his own.

Our thoroughly enjoyable night adds to the overall magic of another splendid sojourn in Kenmare and a couple of blissful days later, as we begin the slow, painful process of extraction, driving wistfully, reluctantly out of town, heading for the Cork road, there it is once more, that old earworm, going round and round in my head: ‘As I leave behind Neidín, it’s like purple splashed on the green.’

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