AS someone obsessed by the idea of catching impossibly large and beautiful salmon in impossibly large and beautiful rivers I have had to come to understand that the hoping and wishing may almost be as exciting as the arriving and doing.
The months of anticipation can be as absorbing as the days of adventure — especially as success is far more easily imagined than realised.
Even though there are as many businesses endorsing restaurants today as there are ways to cook a chicken, a Michelin star remains the holy grail, the most-envied and disproportionately influential gong in the industry. Some Michelin judgements seem perfectly rational and fair, others idiosyncratic. Some very good restaurants are repeatedly ignored but, in a typically stuff-’em Irish way, this unevenness seems to fuel the must-have-bragging-rights obsession.
Booking a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant is not an everyday event, in this part of the world anyway and that won’t change anytime soon. Two weeks ago when the 2015 stars were awarded no additions were made to the list of the anointed in Ireland. There are only 10 stars in the Republic but only nine restaurants are represented — Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud kept its two-star status. Only four of these are outside of Dublin; two in Kilkenny, one in Galway and another in Waterford. When I booked a table at Campagne I knew it had a star but, just a day later, when the announcement that it had retained it for another year was made expectations were a sliver beyond normal. And, by and large, they were realised.
Campage head chef and proprietor Garrett Byrne and his team presented really lovely food, lovely balanced plates and a few really memorable moments — especially during the first course. There was an individualism, a stand-apart confidence and adventure about the menu that deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed and maybe this is the characteristic that set it apart from at least three other restaurants in the south of Ireland that, in my experience, are as impressive if a tad more straitlaced.
When I booked the only table available, I was assured, was a cancellation at eight o’clock so this put the very fresh and attractive early-bird menu — amazing value at €32 for three courses — out of bounds . As it happened the dining room was a little more than half full but the fact that Kilkenny’s Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin were doing what Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin do that very evening may have had an influence on bookings. It did show however that a Michelin star does not guarantee napkins on knees.
DW opened with a terrine of fois gras, a pedro ximenez jelly, raisins, all set off by an amazing pickled walnut puree. It did taste as wonderful and rich as it sounded. My starter, pithivier of woodpigeon with a beetroot chutney was a splendid dish. Depth, subtlety, empathy and a wonderful tactile experience may seem a star-struck, breathless way to describe what is essentially a meat pie but it really was that lovely.
For her main course DW had Aylesbury duck breast, glazed and salt baked beetroot, black cabbage and blackberry jus. Altogether excellent. I had, a first in an Irish restaurant for me, roast grouse, grouse pate, creamed cabbage with cep mushrooms. Grouse — number seven shot if I was not mistaken — always seem to me to be the very onomatopoeia of food; it tastes just as you might imagine the beautiful places it comes from might taste. Dense, strongly flavoured, purple-coloured flesh and oh-so- wild. And what a contrast to blandness that afflicts so much restaurant cooking in Ireland. Our main courses would have been enhanced had we ordered side dishes of vegetables but we did not, foolishly imaging that they might have been served automatically in a restaurant of this standard.
The wine — Domaine Aonghusa €38 — was a very pleasant surprise. It is produced by Pat Neville and Catherine McGuinness, both late of this parish, outside of Carcassonne. The notes suggested that it would improve dramatically if allowed to breath for a few hours, an assertion I plan to test.
Campagne is in an almost grotty location but the food is memorable and justifies the litany of awards won by Garrett Byrne — he probably has more than Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin at this stage and they are as well-earned. An obsession satisfied.
Dinner for two, with wine and an Irish coffee came to €143.
Lunch Fri to Sat 12.30pm to 2.30pm; Sunday lunch 12.30pm to 3pm. Early bird Tues to Thurs 6pm to 7pm, Fri and Sat 5.30pm to 6pm. Dinner Tues to Sat 6pm to 10pm.
Campagne, 5 The Arches, Gas House Lane, Kilkenny; tel: 056-7772858, www.campagne.ie
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