The trees are still in full leaf in west Cork on this road trip to Ballydehob. Around each bend, neon green rectangles stand out among the darker fields. The grass roots are luminously pale after silage cuts close to the bone to try to scrape enough for the winter ahead.
The logo for Robbie Krawczyk’s Restaurant Chestnut is not a large-leafed tree in full summer glory but a bare one, all root and branch. The restaurant is in a former pub. The name suggests it will be polished conker brown timber but the Chestnut is a tiny-terraced town pub, small rooms with stoop-your-head doorways and ceilings lower than a January day when the mist never lifts.
The chef has smoke in his bones, and it's used to gorgeous effect with that most overlooked of courses: the bread and butter
It’s plain but there’s nothing mean-spirited about the place. The tables for two are generously large. We sit in the dark-grey-painted back room on Danish-style chairs with a paper menu finished with a wax seal stamped with that chestnut tree logo. The Chestnut is a homecoming for Krawczyk, who grew up in Schull. His father, Frank, is a charcuterie and smoking expert and his mother, Anne, ran the front of house in their tiny restaurant. His partner, Elaine Fleming, is front of house here, keeping the family tradition going.
The chef has smoke in his bones, and it’s used to gorgeous effect with that most overlooked of courses: the bread and butter. Smoking and curing are obsolete techniques that could have been swept away in the chilly light from freezers. These days gluts can be blast frozen, dried or shipped to China lickety split, but it turns out that we love all those old flavours and the depths added to things when they’re fermented, smoked or have the moisture slowly coaxed out of them with salt and air. Here smoked butter is served at room temperature, making it just solid enough to meld to a knife before melting into still warm sour dough like a lick from a bonfire.
Snacks are served on beautiful Dunbeacon Pottery, made up the road in Durrus. There’s a fluffy goat’s cheese curled into a scroll of kohlrabi, a crumbed brandade like a posh fish ball topped with a mustard mayonnaise made shiny black with squid ink. Krawczyk channels his inner Heston to make a “beef tomato”, a jokey beef tartare wrapped in a gelled tomato layer and topped with a stalk from an actual tomato. It’s fun but not tomatoey or tartare-y enough to get past parlour-trick territory.
We’re back on track after that brief diversion with my dish of the night, a tapioca and mussel bowl with plump, sweet mussels ribboned with seaweed, almost eggy in its savouriness. There’s a clever temperature thing going on with a scallop and cauliflower dish, a silken puree that might not have worked had it been a notch cooler or hotter but is just so very right. They get away with a sorbet by making it ridiculously tasty bright green gin and cucumber slushy for grown-ups topped with an aerated lemon splodge white as icing.
A small rectangle of hake has a butter crisp skin and is served with a lemon and dill butter, flecked with colour like the skin of a summer marrow and finished with a petal from a courgette flower, a farewell damp hanky wave to summer.
Less but better
There’s a luscious round of lamb whose fat is almost more delicious than the juicy meat with a ratatouille of tiny chopped vegetables and a strip of roasted aubergine. It’s the “less but better” school of meat and judged just right for this tasty tasting menu. Desserts are fruity and vegetable for the first course with strawberries and a celery ice. Then there’s a blackberry and cookie crumble smothered in a sabayon made with some generous wrist action on a bottle of good wine. We finish with a simple cube of Young Buck cheese with honey and pollen. Mike Thomson’s blue cheese started out great and has grown into my favourite Irish cheese, a world class blue that needs nothing more than a feel for its serving temperature and a drizzle of the local honey.
The restaurant feels like the work of someone shedding layers of chef and delving deeper into his own food story
Restaurant Chestnut is food made with a lot of kitchen skill but even more importantly a lot of heart. The restaurant feels like the work of someone shedding layers of chef and delving deeper into his own food story. It’s the kind of cooking that can keep rural Ireland not just relevant but make it a more exciting place to eat than most city restaurants.
Dinner with three glasses of wine and sparkling water came to €159.75.
Verdict Definitely worth a visit
Facilities Small, like everything else
Food provenance Hardly any. Young Buck the only named producer
Wheelchair access No
Vegetarian options Need to be requested for tasting menu