KENMARE (Neidín) and I have history, beginning in the ’80s at Cibeal Cincise, a mighty little arts festival that provided us younger philistines with cultural cover for industrial-strength carousing.
Rugged survivalist types might have had actual tents but most of us bunked in Galileo’s ‘Starry Chamber’, trusting celestial sprinklers to hold off ’til morn, when we would breakfast on day-old batch loaf and Calvita, no more cutlery or ware to hand than furry teeth and grubby paws.
In culinary terms, one of Ireland’s original food destinations had the head start on me but I gradually caught up; these days any mention of ‘Kenmare’ has me drooling like Pavlov’s pooch.
(When the inaugural Kenmare Food Festival kicked off in 2012, many wondered what took it so long to join the party. We were further and more greatly confounded, when the festival ground to a halt a short few years later.)
I’ve returned with a pair of the progeny, My Heart’s Delight and Dear Old Sainted Mother for an Easter break in a cottage in remote mountainous forest between Kenmare and Sneem but glorious Neidín is very much our base.
Arriving on Spy Wednesday, a bolshie sun plays peek-a-boo behind boisterous clouds.
Mere yards from our Henry St parking spot, we are drawn into Maison Gourmet to purchase dessert ever before we have found lunch, leaving with excellent sourdough and good patisserie.
Further down the street, we dive back in time, into the deep burgundy and dark wood depths of The Purple Heather, one of Kenmare’s original gourmet destinations.
Lounging on a red leather banquette to the rear of the darkened pub on a sunny afternoon would put the brakes on any speedster and we relish a lazy lunch with DOSM’s warm goat’s cheese salad and MHD’s fresh prawn salad earning deserved praise while my sweet, healing tomato bisque is top-heavy with meaty fresh crab claws.
Run by Grainne O’Connell, our lunch is capped by a meeting with Grainne’s sister, Maura Foley, one of my original food heroes, whose influence extends well beyond the town she has done so much to elevate into a bona fide food destination.
Chef Bruce Mulcahy is a social media hermit so his digital profile is correspondingly low in 21st century Ireland’s culinary quarters but he has cooked superbly in Kenmare for over two decades.
In a new venue since my last visit, the Mulcahys have turned a long, low-ceilinged room with a paucity of natural light into a sleek, intimate dining room although more wattage directly over the tables would better enable the diner to eat equally well with eyes.
We have spent our holiday grazing all day long like stray cattle on the long acre so limit our party of five to two starters: My boudin of prawn and lobster is a just-firm poached ‘sausage’ of superb crustacean meat in umami-rich lobster jus while a queue forms for MHD’s sushi plate: fresh salmon, scallop and cod encased in sticky, starchy rice.
No 2 Son ploughs like Desperate Dan fresh out of a health farm through tender fillet steak with crispy onion rings and garlic butter but as Mulcahy has always revelled in the local catch, we three adults plump for fish.
MHD has velvety scallops with a crisp, carmelised exterior, while mussel, bacon and clam cream adds muscularity to DOSM’s demure Roast Halibut.
My black sole, lifting away from the bone in a single, succulent fillet, is anointed with savoury-sweet tomato brown butter.
We wash down this sterling seafood triumvirate with a fair Albarino (Val do Sosego 2015). Desserts are well-crafted and pleasing, silky crème brulee, the pick of the bunch.
Service lets the side down somewhat: while no one is slacking off, too much time spent chatting to regulars sees us and other customers often abandoned once food arrives and we are also left waiting too long for further assistance.
Still and all, it is a systems problem rather than any individual failing on the part of good-humoured and hardworking servers and systems are easily rectified.
Heading homeward a few days later, we recall the old Jimmy McCarthy number, ‘As I leave behind Neidín, It’s like purple splashed on green, My soul is strangely fed….’ Well, you might add five more souls — and five wonderfully-fed bellies — to the list of those who find Kenmare so very hard to leave behind.
€196 (excluding tip)
“Chef/proprietor Bruce Mulcahy makes splendid use of the local catch to offer some stunning seafood.”