Review: Is this the best value restaurant in the country?
Great Kilkenny restaurant manages to be both fresh and comfortingly familiar
- Proprietor: Garrett Byrne and Brid Hannon
- 5 The Arches Kilkenny, Gashouse Lane
- (056) 7772858
- € € € €
There’s probably a lavender-scented corner of the internet where napkin fetishists gather to sigh over crisp squares.
They should organise a get-together at Campagne. The Kilkenny restaurant has the most beautiful napkins I’ve ever fondled. They’re Irish linen, with a simple perforated edge, ironed so they sit on your lap in a triangle like the sail from a storybook yacht.
It’s the little things that count and Campagne has them in spades. Arriving in the rain we dash to what turns out to be the back of this building almost tucked in under the railway bridge.
At the front there are a series of sealed doors before we finally make it to the one that lets us in. But then it’s all calm oak panelling, with leaf cut-outs in oak like a funky confessional. Bless me, chef. It’s been many months since my last Michelin meal.
There are comfortable banquette seats, those elegant napkins and the calm hum of a restaurant that knows precisely what it is doing.
Garett Byrne moved to Kilkenny in 2008 to open Campagne with his wife Brid, after several years cooking with Ross Lewis in Chapter One. He earned a star five years in, along with the Lady Helen at Mount Juliet, making 2013 the year of the cat.
Another animal is the theme here with hares dotted around, in a line drawing on the place mats. The original ceramic hare sits at the pass looking out at the diners as the food goes by.
Behind us there’s a five-panel modern art piece running the length of the restaurant which reflects what’s going on with the plates. It’s classic French cooking, with its profoundly buttery sauces and long, slow braises but there’s a lightness and play to it too, like the crispy shallots on top of the ricotta gnocchi.
The gnocchi are two fat airy quenelles of fluffy cheese topped with a nutty brown crust of toasted parmesan. Those shallots taste of pure chip shop, the best crunchy shards at the bottom of the bag.
There’s a soupy pea and broadbean mix underneath the gnocchi which combines those fresh summery vegetables with a lower meaty note that grounds the whole plate.
I have what looks like a lone fish finger dotted with decorations from the squeezy bottles. But it’s a fiendishly tasty pigs’ trotter croquette, threads of meat in a crisp panko crumb.
What I love even more are the silken ribbons of celeriac underneath. They’re marinated with a mustard punch which gives you all the flavours of a remoulade without the mayonnaise. An apple purée the colour of mahogany ties all the tang, salt and meat together with sweetness.
“No need to ask if you’re finished,” the waiter says, with an arched eyebrow. He’s right. I’ve virtually mopped the glaze off the plate.
A wedge of Hereford beef (cheek I’m guessing) sits almost liquorice black on top of more celeriac in one of the mains. This time the gnarly root has been blended into a butter-smooth creamy purée.
There’s a fine cabbage salsa on top of the meat which is so tender it could be eaten with a disposable spoon. A long shallot cleaved into two slithery sweet halves sits to the side.
My hake comes on a chowder of clam and potato, which isn’t as lumpen as that sounds. Potatoes are diced into tiny cubes and combined in a light broth with a couple of white asparagus spears and sprouting broccoli that’s barely blanched so it’s kept all its green sweetness.
The clams are pings of briney juiciness. It’s a deconstructed chowder with every element still tasting brilliantly of itself.
Dessert is a brief time machine back to childhood birthdays and fishing slippery shards of jelly out of melting ice cream. Here it’s rhubarb jelly in a rapidly dissolving yoghurt panna cotta.
The rhubarb comes three ways, spears of bright pink champagne rhubarb macerated so they haven’t collapsed into mush, a rhubarb sorbet and that jelly, sealing over a panna cotta so delicate it feels only fleetingly solid.
Lunching in starry restaurants has long been a way to enjoy a keenly priced treat. A two-course lunch here costs under €30 which makes it some of the best value in the country.
Byrne is standing by the door looking worried as we leave. He has nothing to worry about. Campagne is a great restaurant that manages to be both fresh and comfortingly familiar and that’s no mean feat to pull off.
Campagne, 5 The Arches, Gashouse Lane, Kilkenny (056) 7772858
Verdict:8.5/10. If you live in Kilkenny go often. If you haven’t been yet go now.
Lunch for two with a glass of wine, shared dessert and coffee came to €73.90.
Food provenance:Extensive. Butlers’ family farm free-range chicken, Mary Walsh’s Aylesbury duck, organic veg from Vincent Grace.
So you missed out on tickets for an evening with Graham Norton during the West Cork Literary Festival? Me too.
Well how about talking food instead? And where better to do it than in a restaurant? I’ll be in the Fish Kitchen in Bantry at 2.30pm on Monday, July 17th, to host Delicious Words, a conversation about the sometimes weird and often wonderful world of writing about your dinner.
The festival has packed in more food this year. Trish Deseine will be in town on Saturday, July 15th, in conversation with fellow food writer Joe McNamee at 6.30pm.
Tickets for Delicious Words are €20 and can be booked at http://www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival/programme/detail/catherine-cleary