Campagne, 5 the Arches, Gashouse Lane, Kilkenny. Tel: 056 7772858.
Throughout the boom years smart hotels and restaurants sprang up across the country. International names arrived and emblazoned their brands on new (and older) properties, they created plush interiors and matched these with luxurious provisions. Some succeeded. Some didn’t. But what many had in common was a blinkered corporate view of the world they parachuted into. They struck exclusive catering deals with national suppliers ignoring local goods.
Then they started to complain that locals weren’t eating in their restaurants, local people were ignoring their chic new bars, indeed their dwindling businesses were made up for the most part from out-of-towners. How could locals not see how sophisticated they were? Actually, because they weren’t that sophisticated – if you’re not supplying your rural business from the hinterland then you don’t deserve their support. This is clearly not a problem for Campagne in Kilkenny. At the top of the menu the local suppliers are all proudly listed.
Sunday lunch at Campagne is a bit of an institution so went with a gang of three for their set menu – you get two courses for €24 and three for €29. The table d’hote menu has starters hovering around the €11 mark and main courses around the €27, so this really is excellent value. I kicked off with a ham hock terrine with celeraic remoulade, spiced apple puree and walnut toast. Two very generous portions of ham flaked away revealing shadows of spicing and saltiness, ideal with the sweet tasting bread and the cooling texture of the remoulade.
The smoked haddock fishcake, came with spring onion hollandaise and a poached organic egg from Eamonn Wallace, who farms in Windgap. The fishcake was almost too large, though the plate was cleared, so hardly a complaint. The proportion of fish to potato was generous too allowing for a big punch of smoky fish flavour balanced by the vivid saffron-yellow egg yolk.
The fish came from John Hoyne, of the Fishman’s Market, big stars of the Savour Kilkenny Food Festival and another example of the positive spiral of symbiotic financial engagements.
The red pepper mousse came with a tomato, shallot and basil salad with a Parmesan crisp on a pale blue plate. The combined textures and zinging flavours seemed far greater than the parts.
Following negotiations worthy of Boutros Boutros-Ghali we finally settled on three different dishes on the agreement that we’d get to taste each other’s meals.
The rabbit leg wrapped in parma ham, and served with soft polenta and sprouting broccoli was magic. The ham imparted a gentle flavour to the mild rabbit, not overpowering it, and the delicate broccoli was just the right contrast. Only the polenta sat untouched. So many dislike the mouth-feel of this and I have to agree that I’m more a fan of the polenta chips.
The braised shoulder of spring lamb with potato and fennel gratin and a rosemary jus was another winner. Interestingly, chef Garrett Byrne tends not to overwhelm the purity of the ingredients, which was the the case here, allowing a classical take to frame some really beautiful meat.
I had the free range chicken with braised lettuce, peas and ham and a pea puree. The chicken actually tasted of chicken and though I’d have liked a little more crispiness on the skin I soon forgot my gripes as I pecked my way through the vividly coloured and gloriously flavoured accompaniments. The chicken comes from Mary Walsh in Shellumsrath, where they do goose too and they are also part of the Kilkenny Food Trail. A single local ingredient can generate so much local revenue.
For afters we had chocolate mousse, lemon curd and caramelised hazelnuts to share, a tough decision considering the deliciousness of it. We also shared a laudably simple cheese board of Hegarty’s cheese with oatmeal biscuits and quince jelly. The rich cheddar-like texture was ideal with the sweet quince.
Chef Garrett Byrne and his partner Brid Hannon opened Campagne in 2008 to much national acclaim. The quality of the cooking here has always been at an international level but the roots of their success are in the locality. By using and celebrating produce from nearby they not only support a growing unique terroir they are also part of a network of small businesses which will help weather economic gusts far better than a single employer.