MARIA RAFFERTY LEAVES ZUNI
TO DO HER OWN THING IN KILKENNY
15 – 16 Vicar Street
Irish Daily Mail
10 June 2017
After a few days eating in some of London’s edgier restaurants, I’ve developed some new enthusiasms and renewed others like that for the Lucque olives from the south of France which I wolfed down sitting outside Noble Rot, the ultimate wine bar, on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury; they are, I’ve decided, simply the best.
And there are Tropea onions, the deliciously sweet and tender young Italian red ones that I’ve yet to see here, and monksbeard, the salty, succulent vegetable that goes so well with fish. And Calçots, the Catalonian scallions on steroids that I’ve only ever encountered here at the remarkable Etto in Dublin.
When you open a restaurant, it must be tempting to lard the menu with buzz words but there’s a danger – even in a world where we have Google in our pockets – that they will frighten the customers.
There’s nothing on the menu at Kernel that isn’t reasonably familiar and that’s not just because, as a relatively new restaurant, it needs to tread cautiously. It’s also because keeping the menu short, simple and comprehensible is a very sensible thing to do.
Kernel, you see, is in a modest hotel close to Kilkenny’s medieval cathedral. The hotel is a riot of indecisive interior design (there are at least four kinds of chair and a sense that whoever put it all together simply didn’t know when to stop), but the kitchen knows exactly what it’s at.
This is because the chef is Maria Rafferty, who was in the kitchen at Zuni for the better part of twenty years, is a talented and disciplined operator. It’s all about confidence and experience.
A 'Scotch egg' employed deconstructed ham hock in place of the usual sausage meat and the egg, perfectly centred within a perfect sphere, had a set white and a hot, molten yolk. That’s clever. So too was the idea of accompanying it with piccalilli – cauliflower pieces, nuggets of carrot and other veg in a turmeric-scented pickle, something we don’t see often enough.
Croquettes of Goatsbridge Trout, farmed near Thomastown, were good, succulent if a little oily, and served with a kind of fennel slaw, creamy and scented – I think – with a little tarragon. The only mild complaint was that the white wine vinegar they use here is pretty aggressive.
The croquettes were presented in a spring-loaded cake tin. Why? I have no idea. I was tempted to send a picture to the excellent Twitter account @WeWantPlates.
I ordered the hamburger because… well, because it sounded so good, and so it proved. But when it arrived, I was entranced by the chips. At first bite, they proved to be everything that a chip should be: crisp outside, fluffy inside, perfectly salted, dry, tasting of potato. This may seem not a lot to ask for, but frankly the average chip in Ireland is an abomination. You would be just as well off eating cardboard. I can, however, report that Kernel’s chips are amongst the finest in the land.
And the hamburger was a triumph too, full of proper, mature, beefy flavour, cooked to the nanosecond of doneness to retain moisture, sitting on generous slices of dill pickle (hurray!) and coated with a creamy, intensely savoury, tart sauce that I think may be Kernel’s take on that rather delicious stuff McDonald’s put into Big Macs. And far, far superior, of course.
The other main course was a salad of grilled Toonsbridge halloumi from North Cork, the halloumi salty and creamy, almost meaty in texture and the salad really rather complex. It had short lengths of sugar snap peas, little florets of broccoli, salad leaves, creamed avocado and a dressing that enhanced these elements rather than masking them. Roasted barley and quinoa add further textures. This was a serious salad, full of both flavour and virtue.
A shared pudding of lemon meringue mess was simplicity itself but delightfully decadent. In an old-fashioned dessert coupe came a layer of rich, vanilla ice cream, topped with cream enriched with broken meringue, pipped with dots of sharp lemon curd and topped, overall, with a swirl of browned, soft meringue.
With lots of mineral water, three glasses of wine and coffee, the bill came to €77.