This week Joe McNamee dined in both The Field Kitchen at The Blackbird, Ballycotton and Quinlan’s Seafood Bar, 14, Princes St, Cork. Here are his thoughts.
Each year, when Michelin unveil their latest round of stars, it inevitably triggers a kerfuffle but if you want to start a serious brawl around these parts then nail colours to the mast and pronounce a particular fish and chip shop to be superior to all competitors.
Once, this argument was easily ended on Leeside with mention of Kiely’s, on Maylor St, but it closed in 2007 after 67 years in business. (New proprietors in the same premises trading under the Kiely brand are but a very pale imitation of the original.)
Several years later, I encountered Mattie Kiely on the ferry to France. He was on an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes; our meeting was my culinary equivalent and I duly paid homage.
We passed a lovely hour, trading old war stories and anecdotes of former customers while I pumped him for definitive wisdom on batters, fish and the ideal chip. To this day, the Kiely fish supper remains my personal benchmark.
Quinlan’s own a long-established seafood processing business in Kerry and have moved into the hospitality sector with an upmarket version of the local chipper, with branches in Tralee, Killarney and Cork. Décor is bright and welcoming with a chirpy maritime theme.
The menu boasts a range of sustainable locally caught fish from their own boats though I’m presuming this doesn’t include the sea bass, it being prohibited to fish for same in Irish waters.
Deep Water Atlantic Prawns in Tempura Batter are delicious, lovely crisp batter and sumptuous prawn meat but what has the taste and texture of a bought-in pre-prepared garlic mayonnaise lets the side down.
Wild Whiting with Tartar Sauce and mushy peas is a fine slab of fish with a decent batter but the tartar sauce is also an issue, this one downright nasty, sharp, thin flavour and the texture of porridge, density exaggerated by over-emulsification and excessive chilling.
I plough through the fish until I start spitting out bones, including a sizeable section of spine.
I mention it to passing waitress, not our original server. What sort of fish was it, she asks.
Whiting, say I. Ah, there’s always bones in whiting and plaice. I am rather stunned at this response — in fact, I have yet to encounter bones in a single battered fish in over 40 years of frequenting humble takeaway chippers, not to mind any proper restaurant.
It’s one thing landing fish onto the docks, it’s quite another landing them onto the plate and while the concept is sound, Quinlan’s will have to sharpen up their offering beyond the level of mid-range takeaway to thrive in this more elevated end of the market.
In recent times, I have been blowing hard on the embers of a former passion, namely, a fierce grá for Ballycotton, a bracing walk along the beautiful cliffpath followed by a pint in any of the little East Cork village’s fine pubs, being a once-regular winter routine. The Blackbird has since undergone a contemporary Shaker-style makeover and is now a gorgeous 21st century traditional Irish pub but the hidden ace is The Field Kitchen, a standalone catering unit in the beergarden, primarily serving fish and chips, something of a no-brainer in the epicentre of the local fishing industry. We make our order and then pop back inside to our cosy perch by the stove.
Fresh battered haddock arrives but batter is overly browned and insufficiently crisp suggesting an under-heated fryer.
A re-run is infinitely superior and Monkfish scampi are pretty splendid, juicy gobbets of perfectly cooked fresh fish in golden batter, and a green salad is excellent, fresh and local.
All rather heavenly indeed.
But what of the chips, says you? Compared to Mattie’s crisp golden chips with fluffy white interior (‘only ever use Maris Pipers, ideally cooked in dripping’—the gospel according to Mattie), neither Quinlan’s nor The Fish Shack hit the mark, both overly sweet and mealy and I suspect the problem with both may be a modern innovation — pre-cut, vac-packed chips.
In days of yore, freshly cut raw chips were left to soak in cold water, leaching away sugary starch.
Instead, the pre-packed version concentrates those starches yielding a less than ideal chip.
The Field Kitchen are making a very good fist of all the other elements so why not the chips as well?
Now, how come Mattie Kiely never got a Michelin Star?
The Field Kitchen
€72.35 (meal for four including starters and wine)
Quinlan’s Seafood Bar
€66 (meal for two, including starters and wine)
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