French fare

TWENTY YEARS ago, anyone who was anyone in food went to France.

These days, as Arthur Lubow famously put it in the New York Times agazine, “they go there to learn what not to do”. The country that once defined haute cuisine has plummeted to earth like a shot pheasant.

Blame complacency. Blame the rise to power of Ferran Adrià and Spain’s nueva cocina. Blame the all-powerful Michelin guide, the all-consuming hypermarchés, or the flight of French chefs overseas. But London, Tokyo and New York have made off with Paris’s culinary mojo.

Against this backdrop, and in a recession, what is the outlook for a French fine dining restaurant in the heart of Wexford town? Granted, Le Tire Bouchon (The Corkscrew) is not shooting for Michelin stars. But it is making a serious stab at serious French fare in a very sceptical climate.

Travelling in Wexford recently, I dropped in on the recommendation of Kathleen Mernagh, who runs the lovely farmhouse B&B, Killiane Castle, with her husband Jack.

I found an atmospheric 65-seater stashed above the Sky and the Ground pub and laid out around a bar finished with wood from chateau wine boxes. It’s a nice, intimate room, with splashes of white linen, wooden floors, stained glass and black and white photos — one featuring a cocky young Marco Pierre White.

I started with a trio of Wexford salmon, after plenty of deliberating over a selection that included Wexford crab, baked camembert and black pudding stuffed with Toulouse sausage. Chef Kevin Carley’s menu is distinctly French, but it pays an encouraging nod to local ingredients.

The salmon trio comprised very moist organic smoked salmon, a pâté of sorts served on a tiny lettuce leaf and humming with a barbecue flavour, and a chilled poached mousse on a sliver of toast. The dish was nicely presented on a black slate, two out of three salmon themes were speckled with caviar and I thought it excellent value for €9.

I liked the fact that a glass of wine is suggested with each course, too — a thoughtful touch that encourages customers to try wine and food pairings that elevate both, rather than settling for a common bottle that may or may not suit different orders at the table. Arnaud Clement’s selection is heavily French, though you can of course ignore the maitre d’ and do your own thing.

I went with the recommended Sauvignon Blanc, a Domaine Mardon 2008 from the Loire Valley. It helped me decide on a main course too, as it was also the recommended match for the pan-fried John Dory.

John Dory is a succulent, delicate and flavoursome fish, but it dished up the evening’s one disappointment. Though served with green beans, a tasty green pea sauce and some beautiful roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine, the fish itself arrived on the dry and firm side, and by the time I was mopping up the sauce, had grown a little rubbery around the edges. A wobble.

Other main courses include a pan-fried sea bass with a lemon beurre blanc, a salmon “en papillote” served with green beans, prawns and champagne, as well as pan-fried ostrich medallions and an 8oz fillet of beef. The most expensive main course was a rack of spring lamb at €26.95.

For dessert, I went with a warm chocolate fondant with vanilla cream. I was told it would take 10 minutes to make, but it was worth the wait. Cracking it open, a dark and devilish gunge spilled out, contrasting yummily with the cream — a taste of France at its fat-loving best.

Overall, I think the French adventure pays off. Le Tire Bouchon aspires to provide “fine dining done in a non-intimidating way” on its website, and largely it succeeds. The service was courteous without being stuffy, the menus written simply but with class, and the presentation had a touch of pomp without getting too OTT. None are easy to pull off.

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