My suggestion to drive from Dublin to Kilkenny for dinner in Campagne, returning the same night, was met with derision from Jacqui, my first (so far) wife.
“What kind of food could possibly justify the round trip?” she quite reasonably shrieked.
I answered thusly.
• It’s only a 1.5 hour drive from Dublin, mostly motorway.
• It’s one of only nine Michelin Star restaurants in Ireland (so the grub should be ok).
• The head chef and co-owner is ex Chapter One head chef Garrett Byrne (so the grub should actually be quite good).
• We can bring our friend Paul so there’ll be slightly less shrieking.
Given the long journey, we opted for the earliest of early bird dinners with a 5:30pm table.
The early bird is a wonderful thing. You pay less, stand a better chance of getting a great table and enjoy the same standard of food as you would a few hours later. What’s not to love?
Our table at Campagne was in a bright corner by the windows which front the modern, slightly bland, rectangular building.
Inside is far from bland, stylish décor, lots of curves with the kitchen pass glowing enticingly from the corner.
We were each handed two simple sheets of paper. An a la carte menu with starters in the €10 to €15 range and mains at around €30 and an early bird menu with two courses for €25 or three for €30. Yes folks, eat a few hours earlier and you pay for three courses what a single main on the a la carte menu would cost.
The only downside to this obviously excellent frugal strategy is that instead of six options for starters and six for mains you have four for each.
Naturally when faced with such excellent value we made like it was 2006 again and ordered starters from the early bird and mains from the a la carte, an act which would make Angela Merkel spin in her parsimonious grave.
If she were dead.
Which she isn’t.
Besides if she were then I was in Kilkenny all night and have the Visa bill to prove it.
Paul was the only one drinking wine and he chose a 500ml carafe of house white for €16.50, bottles of wines on the well balanced list range from €25 to €84.
The person that brought us water for the table must have completed top of her class in smiling college, it makes such a difference when staff smile at you.
Note to restaurateurs on hiring staff: Make smiling a required qualification.
But what of the food? Even the shorter early bird menu left us struggling to choose one course over another, deep fried smoked haddock with a poached organic egg and hollandaise; Aylesbury Duck sausage, beetroot chutney, lentils and sherry vinegar; Warm asparagus, asparagus mousse, fresh crab and hollandaise?
The duck won. Or rather I won, when not ten minutes after ordering, there arrived a chunk of succulent, almost sweet, duck sausage on a bed of lentils in a rich sauce all set off rather nicely by the tangy beetroot chutney.
Paul and Jacqui opted for the smoked haddock, fillets of carefully smoked fish in crisp batter, the poached egg resting on top. Three clean plates.
Next came a surprise course, described as an amuse bouche, you’d want a fairly large bouche to fit this amuse, actually a slightly smaller version of a starter, a strip of roasted quail, creamed peas and smoked bacon that prompted inciteful foodie comments like “nom” and “they taste like peas” (because only fresh peas taste like that).
The main courses at Campagne were equally challenging to choose from. Slow cooked lamb shoulder, cocoa beans, fennel and rosemary nearly won out until I saw Squab pigeon, peas a la francaise, asparagus gratinated with ham and parmesan on the a la carte menu.
The pieces of medium rare squab (it means young, I Googled it) pigeon were perched on peas a la francaise, peas braised with lettuce in chicken stock. Pigeon isn’t a tender meat but it more than makes up for it in taste, delicious and gamey, and the requisite chewing gave me time to examine the tiny onions, so firm they surely had to be raw, of course they weren’t, just cooked to perfection, sweet but in no way squishy. The asparagus gratin was one of those “so obvious, why didn’t I think of that” accompaniments. Clever old chef.
We were filling up at this stage and surely wouldn’t have room for… OOH! Glazed ginger cream, beignets and rhubarb ice cream!!! Rude not to.
The ginger cream was a kind of set custard, the rhubarb pieces cooked only enough, seconds more would have been too much and the beignets, think tiny doughnuts. Perfection. I later tweeted that this course was “like great sex on a plate. Not with me, with someone good.” Because it was that good.
Dinner for three cost €160 plus tip and also featured a carafe of wine, a couple of G&T’s, water and soft drinks. It could have cost less but then three, actually four, courses of Michelin Star food could and usually would cost more.
People of Kilkenny, you’re very lucky. People not of Kilkenny, visit Campagne.