Kilkenny’s reputation as a culinary destination is growing
The city known for its festivals is adding more and better restaurants and eateries
Garrett Byrne and Brid Hannon of Campagne in Kilkenny: Business has been booming since the Michelin man paid a visit. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan.
“Ireland’s gourmet capital” is a notional title that was first applied to the town of Kinsale in Co Cork, which is known for its restaurants and its annual Gourmet Festival, the 38th of which takes place next October. But in recent years, Kilkenny has become a contender for the title, with visitors to the city now just as likely to be those in search of good food as they once were castle explorers and craft collectors.
The international culinary spotlight was focused on Kilkenny last September when the French culinary guide, Michelin, awarded one star each to two Kilkenny restaurants: Campagne in the city centre and the Lady Helen Restaurant at Mount Juliet.
Chef-patron Garrett Byrne opened Campagne with his partner Brid Hannon in August 2008 “just as the recession was taking hold,” he says. “But luckily Kilkenny is busy most weekends and there are a lot of festivals, so there haven’t been as many restaurants closing as in other parts of the country.”
Business has been booming at Campagne since the Michelin man came calling.
“It went a bit mental at the start and it took a while for it to sink in but you get used to the pressure of it and the expectations that come with it,” he says.
Although he describes his style of cooking as “modern French” Byrne is a committed supporter of local producers, with high praise for the chickens and ducks he gets from Mary and Tony Walsh of Kilkenny Free Range, 10 minutes outside the city at Shellumsrath, and the organic vegetables grown by Eamon Wallace and Vincent Grace.
Maria Raftery, the executive chef at Zuni, a restaurant and boutique hotel that opened in 2000 on Patrick Street, also recognises that she has top-quality produce on her doorstep.
“Our local customers like to see the suppliers on the menu, to see where what they’re eating comes from and tourists also enjoy seeing Kilkenny food on the menu,” she says.
A 30-seat conservatory extension is being added to Zuni’s existing 70-seat restaurant space and 30-seat cafe. Raftery is confident the extra capacity will be filled. “We have always been a busy restaurant,” she says. “We need the extra seats, particularly at weekends.”
Langton House Hotel and the Marble City Bar and Tea Rooms are well-known dining options and are notable for their highly stylised interiors by the London-Irish architect and designer David Collins, who died last year.
Mugshot Cafe on James’s Street, which hosted a pop-up by Noma-trained chefs Yannick Van Aeken and Louise Bannon at last year’s Savour Kilkenny food festival, is a popular breakfast and lunch spot.
The options for casual dining will expand next week when Helen Kiely opens what she describes as a “concept deli”, called #eat, on Friary Street. Healthy breakfasts and lunch options including soup, salads and sushi, with nutritional information displayed, will be on the menu there.
Nutritional advice and suggestions for using cheaper cuts of meat, are topics craft butchers Dermot Grogan and Jonathan Brown are often asked about at their shop in Smithlands Centre, Loughboy, which opened last July.
Along with locally-reared beef, which they dry-age to 21 days (30 days for steaks), they stock a lower fat, lower cholesterol Piedmontese beef from Tipperary and say it is popular with Kilkenny hurlers.
Grogan & Brown, which draws custom from across the city, also sells vegetables that Brown says are “dug to order”, bread delivered daily by Tess’s Homestyle Baking, chutneys from the Inistioge Food Company, honey from Mileeven and organic hen and duck eggs.
The city’s food festival, Savour Kilkenny, now in its eighth year, has become an annual fixture. The artisan food market, which is part of it, generated €100,000 in income for 85 stallholders and was attended by 13,500 visitors over two days last October, according to the organising committee, and the 22 dining events that were part of the festival programme generated €38,500 in revenue for participating restaurants. It takes place this year on the October bank holiday weekend.
Kilkenny’s many well-regarded food shops and delicatessens, including The Gourmet Store on High Street, Shortis Wong on John Street and The Little Green Grocer on Parliament Street, have larders stocked by artisan producers of cheese, smoked fish, chocolate, preserves, ice cream and baked goods that dot the city’s hinterland.
Many of these are participants in the Taste of Kilkenny Food Trail, a varied 38-member project group, including a cookery school, poultry farm and livestock mart, as well as restaurants and cafes, that welcome visitors to their premises throughout the city and county.
It is because Co Kilkenny is so well endowed with producers of top-quality, often unique products, that the city’s reputation as a culinary destination is growing. Mag and Ger Kirwan’s Goatsbridge smoked trout and trout caviar; Helen Finnegan’s Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese; Mileeven Fine Foods’s Sarah’s Honey; Truffle Fairy chocolates; Cramer’s Grove ice cream; Highbank Organic Orchards apple juice and orchard syrup; and Second Nature’s rapeseed oils are some of the local products you will find in Kilkenny’s shops, restaurants and cafes, but they are also garnering national and international recognition – and expanding the city’s culinary credentials.