If you ever wondered (okay, probably not) where the oldest wine vault in Ireland is located, you will find it in Waterford city, once considered to be the nation’s wine capital. It was built in 1440 by Peter Rice, a well-to-do wine merchant and city mayor, and now forms part of Waterford’s Medieval Museum. The wine trade in the region extends back to the 13th century, an era of great joviality for all it would seem, as wine was considerably safer to drink than contaminated water from a well.
The wealthy mayors may be long gone, but there’s a new wine boss in town, Vancouver native Morgan VanderKamer, the president of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers. If that distinctive name rings a bell, it may be from her time as the sommelier in Stanley’s on Dublin’s St Andrew’s Street, and more recently from Barrows Keep, the restaurant that she and her partner, chef Stephen McArdle, had in Graiguenamanagh before moving it to Thomastown.
Barrows Keep is now closed, and the couple have opened Union Wine Bar and Kitchen, a spittoon dribble from the mayor’s wine vault. Not only has it the distinction of being the oldest registered commercial building in Waterford, it was once owned by a salt fish seller called Christmas, it did a spell as a hotel, garage and bookshop, and most recently was the Munster Bar.
It still has a bit of that pub energy. A bar bellies out into a semicircle as you walk from the snug area into the large restaurant space, but marble topped tables and comfortable upholstered chairs are evidence of the refurb the couple undertook before opening two months ago. It’s daytime when we visit, so we opt for the informal snug by the window.
The wine list makes for good reading. It’s not the natural wine all-stars, but it has sommelier written all over it. Sherries, vermut, Madeira and skin contact wines are all available by the glass, as well as a few newly arrived darlings which have yet to be added to the list. One of these is Château du Hureau, a Chenin Blanc from the Loire, which VanderKamer suggests as a pairing for the scallop ceviche (€13). It’s €10.25 for a 150ml glass and turns out to be a superb match.
The slices of scallop have had just the right amount of time in the zingy lime juice, so integrity is maintained with a sashimi-like quality. Micro coriander leaves add a fresh floral note, echoed by a small mound of whipped avocado which lurks beneath the fish, with trout roe and dried scallop roe dust adding pops of more concentrated flavours. It’s just about everything you want from a ceviche.
Our other starter, a confit duck terrine (€13) is pretty much as you’d expect, with pickled carrots, cauliflower and shimeji mushrooms bringing a bit of nuance to the dish.
We are eating from the more casual bar menu, but John Dory with petits pois à la Française (€24) is on as a special and appears to be more typical of the restaurant menu dishes, albeit at a more accessible price. I see that a variation of it with langoustines is €30 on the dinner menu. It’s cooked with precision and the braised lettuce in buttery juices rings out the seasons, over broad beans and small sweet peas. A glass of Rosacker Riesling (€12) pairs nicely.
The tagliatelle with Hook Head clams (€17) is a simpler dish, the clams sweet and delicious, bathed in a whisper of garlic and touch of lemon, though they would benefit from just a touch more salt.
For dessert, we share a wobbly buttermilk panna cotta with Wexford strawberries and a sharp lemon sorbet (€12). Sugary shards of meringue are scattered over and a pistachio crumb adds colour, but doesn’t really integrate with the rest of the dish. A sorrel granita might work better.
It is a very tasty lunch, and clearly McArdle and VanderKamer make a cracking team. The bar menu offers value, and is available in the evenings, but it’s a step up for the restaurant menu which pushes into special occasion territory. Waterford is a city that has benefited from an influx of people who are enjoying a new flexibility in how they work, and it is likely that the flexibility of two menu options in one space is exactly what it needs.
Lunch for two with three glasses of wine and a coffee was €114.65.
THE VERDICT 8.5/10 Smart cooking and wines you’ll want to try
Facilities Clean and perfunctory
Music Bob Segar and old classics
Food provenance Billy Burke Fish Shop, Ronan’s Fish Shop, Paul Baron meat, Riversfield Farm organic vegetables, Tom Cleary organic vegetables
Vegetarian options Restaurant menu has one option per course, such as beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, and gnocchi with asparagus. Additional options on bar menu. Can be adapted for vegans.
Wheelchair access Room is accessible, toilet accessible with a ramp