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18 May 2009

Is this the best cooking in Ireland?

Apologies for the title question – the sort of thing that is the scourge of magazines and weekend journalism – but you don't even have to get very far into the series of dishes that forms Mickael Viljanen's tasting menu at Gregan's Castle in The Burren, County Clare, before you find yourself asking that very same question.
And when you reflect on the places that are operating at the same level of Mr Viljanen's achievement, the names that arise are L'Ecrivain, the now-departed Mint, Chapter One, MacNean House, and so on.
Before he made his way to Gregan's, Mr Viljanen worked with Paul Flynn in The Tannery for a year. He has taken Mr Flynn's love of big flavours, and applied it to a technique that has the painterly perfection of Dylan McGrath and the love of surprise of Kevin Thornton.
Lamb comes as a trio of braised neck, breaded shoulder shaped into a finger and roast canon. Lobster is poached in butter, and comes with braised pork and the most amazing baked potato jelly – you just have to try this little baby: it's out of the box. The beetroot dish is a masterpiece, the foie gras a calm indulgence that shows the most extreme technical mastery, whilst the themes explored in the dessert options such as chocolate, custard, strawberry and date and orange are dazzling.
Does he do salted caramel? you ask. He makes a salted caramel to die for, and every plate is a feast for the eyes.
Put this class of food into what is perhaps the leading country house in Ireland at the moment, thanks to Simon Haden's service and Freddy McMurray's design aesthetic, and you have a truly incredible experience. Mr Viljanen is only 27 years old, and a very personable, modest man. There is nothing he won't be able to achieve, but don't waste any time in getting to Corkscrew Hill in The Burren to sample something extraordinary.

14 May 2009

The sharpest tools in the shed...

Eileen Dunne and Stefano Crescenzi are two of the most gifted food entrepreneurs in Ireland, and the recession isn't dimming their ambition, for they have just opened a new L'Officina restaurant in the Arnott's Project shop now open in The Jervis Centre, Dublin.
Seating up to 100 people, the restaurant, designed by Gottstein architects, has a wine bar and a small retail area along the lines of its Kildare Village outlet.

Actually, the McKennas en famille ate at the Kildare Village outlet of L'Officina over easter, and found the entire experience to be nothing short of superb: great room, great staff, great cooking, and then a lovely array of foods to spend a whacking great amount of money on before we got out the door.
It was just great, quite the most delightful way to spend money, and contrary to the somewhat surreal experience of the rest of the village, L'Officina was real, rustic and well rooted. Smart people.

And speaking of smart people, Aran McMahon of RUA, a groundbreaking deli in Castlebar, has a funky, fun new website where you can see RUA in the virtual world:
This is a great shop, one of those pivotal addresses that acts as an aleph of our contemporary food culture in all its inspired brilliance. Don't miss RUA on Spencer Street next time you are in Castlebar.

13 May 2009

Some talking...

John McKenna of this parish will be speaking at the second Slow Food Clare Festival in Lisdoonvarna this weekend, specifically on Friday lunchtime in the Pavilion Theatre in Lisdoonvarna, when the subject will be “Consumption with a Conscience” Whoa! Weighty stuff!
Let's hope McKenna doesn't tell that Homer Simpson joke again, the one that has died a million deaths on the last two occasions he has rolled it out to an unimpressed audience.

You can also catch McKenna at the West Cork Literary Festival, where he will be taking the Food Writing Workshop, between Monday 6th and Friday 10th of July. The five mornings cost €175, and you can expect to hear a lot about Richard Olney, amongst many others. Full details of how to book from

The Good News...

It's not all doom and gloom out there, as these brave restaurateurs in Dublin and Cork show...

Rodney and Audrey have just opened a new Sushi King on Dawson St. in Dublin 2. The new shop and restaurant is an evolution of the wonderful Sushi King take-away on Baggot St., and has the luxury of seats for SK customers so Rodney and Audrey can offer both take out and sit in facilities.

The SK menu has expanded patiently and organically since they first opened, so there is now a range of Japanese and Asian hot food, soups and salads. Take a look at the menu at, on their lovely site designed by Alison Doran.

Baggot St is open Monday to Friday 11am to 6pm, whilst Dawson St is open 7 days 11am to 7pm, and there are plans to extend this in the near future. Best wishes for the new venture from us all!

Down in Kinsale, Pearse and Mary have moved the superb Toddies slightly out of town to the lovely Bulman bar at Summercove, a most gorgeous setting. Take a look at Pearse's new menus, and this is a don't miss! for anyone heading down to Cork for the summer.

Bulman Bar

Tel 021 4777769

Home smoked mackerel
Cucumber pickle, sweet potato blinis 6.50

Fresh soft spring rolls of chicken
Rice noodles, mint, coriander and grilled peanuts 7.50

Grilled St Tolla goats cheese
Lemon oil, locally grown organic salad, tomato vinaigrette 7.50

Oysterhaven mussels
Gubbeen ham, thyme and onion 8.00

Soup of the evening 5.00

Locally caught lobster risotto 12.50

Bulman Bar

Parmesan Polenta with Sage
Roasted vegetables and hazelnut butter 21.50

Grilled Organic sea trout
Wild garlic, chervil mayonnaise 22.50

Yellow Thai Monkfish Curry
Basmati Rice 24.50

Char grilled Fillet Steak
Root vegetable chips, watercress puree
Black pepper or garlic butter 28.50

Locally caught Lobster risotto 24.50

Guinea Fowl, pot au feu
Spring vegetables, tarragon dumplings 24.50

Specials each evening

Hot Oysterhaven oysters, spinach and Desmond Cheese 11.50

Roulade of Ummera Smoked Salmon and honey infused
Blue Bell goats cheese, locally grown organic salad 9.50

Grilled Fillet of Hake, tomato and yellow sage risotto
Pesto dressing 25.50

Fillet of John Dory, organic rocket salad and parmesan 25.50
Bulman Bar

Sample of Bar Menu

Bulman burger and chips 11.50

Half grilled local lobster, hollandaise sauce 15.00

Soup of the Day 4.50 Chowder 7.50

Pot of Local Mussels, Gubbeen Ham, thyme and onions 10.50

Cajun chicken bap, cucumber salsa,
greek yogurt, mint and coriander 8.50

Parma Ham Platter, rocket and parmesan salad 11.50

Fish and chips 10.50

Goats cheese spring rolls, organic salad 7.50

Home-made shepherds pie and garden peas 8.50

Sticky toffee pudding 6.95
Passion fruit crème brulee 6.95

06 May 2009

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

It was a chance line in Nick Lander's FT interview with Jesus Adorno, the director of London's Le Caprice restaurant and mastermind of its celebrated standards of service, that got me thinking about caramel, and salt.
Mr Lander writes of asking for just a scoop of the restaurant's salted caramel ice cream, and eventually receiving it. Now when I think of salt and caramel, I immediately think of Eve St. Leger of Eve's Chocolates in Cork. Ms St Leger makes Corkies, the most sublimely decadent mix of chocolate, nuts and caramel that you can eat. Eve came across salted caremel when studying in the USA, but salted caramel goes back even further than its current fashionable status in that country, for Olivier Roellinger, the celebrated French chef from Brittany, used salt and caramel together many years back, an echo of the salted cheeses of his youth.
Here is a recipe, should you wish to make your own version of the ice that, I have a suspicion, will soon be everywhere.

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

3/4 cup plus ½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
2 cups cream, preferably organic
2 cups whole milk
10 egg yolks
½ teaspoon fleur de sel, plus more for serving.

1. Place 3/4 cup sugar and the corn syrup in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Do not stir. Cook over medium-high heat to a dark caramel, swirling as it begins to brown to distribute the sugar. Deglaze with the cream; then slowly add the milk. The caramel will harden. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring, just until the caramel has dissolved.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, yolks and fleur de sel. Whisk a little caramel cream into the egg mixture to temper, pour the egg mixture into the remaining caramel cream and mix. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve. Cool completely, preferably overnight, then freeze in an ice-cream maker.

3. Serve with the warm cakes and sprinkle both with fleur de sel. Makes about 1 quart.

Adapted from Nicole Kaplan at Eleven Madison Park, New York.

The Irish Times Healthplus

I am grateful to Grace Linehan and the charming pupils of Schull Community College 6th form home ec students who received me so politely and with such concentration when I spoke to them. Preparing my slogans for the class really did cause me more thought – and worry! – than anything I have done in recent times.
One of the Schull pupils, by the way ,is Molly O'Mahony who has just released a fine cd, with Norman Collins on the guitar (pictured), called “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”, a collection of (mainly) Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, which is hugely enjoyable. Do look out for the cd when in West Cork...

Leaving Certificate Home Economics, and me.

9.15 am, the last Friday morning in May.
After sleepless nights, worrysome days, reams of note-making and note-scrapping, book consulting and time planning, it is finally time to talk to Ms Linehan’s class of Home Ec. Leaving Cert students in Schull Community College, West Cork.
So, how can you convey the world of food, with all its social, health, culinary and political ramifications, to a gaggle of seventeen year olds, in a mere seventy minutes?
After sleepless nights and worrysome days thinking it through, I have decided that, like any decent propagandist, the only way is to resort to sloganeering.

1. The question is not: How clever are you? It’s: How are you clever?

The world of food is a world composed in large degree of people who think differently, and who are distinguished by being able to do many tasks simultaneously. Many of these people also had a terrible time at school, because their intelligence didn’t fit in.

2. Man is the Cooking Animal

Aside from our big brains, this is what distinguishes us from everything else. Cooking is, thus, the beginning of all human society.

3. Cooking is Rocket Science.

The next time some geeky engineering student laughs that Home Ec “Isn’t exactly rocket science, is it!?”, just ask them to figure out: How do you make a soufflé? Then ask them if they think they could get a job working in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen. They couldn’t: the science would be beyond them.

4. You are what you eats eats too.

Animals have rights, especially if they are animals which we humans regularly eat. So consider just what you are eating has, in its turn, eaten, and how it has been treated. If you close your eyes to this question, then you are denying animals the respect they deserve.

5. Eat the View.

Barack and Michelle Obama planted the south lawn of the White House in part as a response to the pressure group Eat The View. Eat The View says simply that if you look out your window at a vast expanse of manicured, drugged-up lawn, then you are wasting the chance to grow lots of your own food, thereby cutting down the food miles, saving carbon emissions, and saving the planet.

6. Omega 3 + Omega 6 = Omega-3

Too many Omega 6s in your diet undoes the good work in your cells that the Omega 3s do, so try to get the Omegas into balance. Cut back on the processed foods, and beef up on the bluefish and the grass-fed beef and lamb.

7. Eating is an Agricultural Act.

Modern society has schismed the relationship between what we eat and the people who grow and rear the food we consume. Having a link to the people who make the food you eat is not merely good sense for your diet and your health, it is also good sense for society. So go on: hug a farmer.

8. Slow Food.

The international Slow Food movement is not about fancy eating, but rather it is a group concerned with the culture and history of our food, and the meaning of our food cultures. If you can afford it, do try to get onto the degree course at the Slow Food University in Italy. A good Home Ec result in the Leaving Cert will surely help you get there, and then you can help to make Slow Food as ubiquitous in our lives as Fast Food.

9. Cooking is Magic.

This is really the nub of it all. A cook is firmly in charge of their domestic economy, and in charge of their health. They are, each and every day, engaged in a creative act. That creative act of cookery is also supremely social. Cooking for your friends and family is the ultimate social act, the very glue of society, and the most profound form of empowerment. Above all, the transformatory nature of cookery, the alchemical reactions we initiate and create in the kitchen, lets us weave our own form of magic.

The charming students listened attentively, made informed comments, then gave me a polite round of applause and a nice bottle of red wine to say thank you.
Young people today! They just fill you with hope for the future.