A PILGRIMAGE TO WEST CORK IS NO PENANCE
6 South Square
Phone: 023 8831796
Irish Daily Mail
3 June 2017
I wonder why they called it Pilgrim's? Did they know that this little restaurant in a pretty West Cork village would, indeed, become a place of pilgrimage for people who love good food? Because it has. I know of at least one person who drove from Dublin for dinner and back again the same night. That takes over eight hours, depending on the traffic.
What makes it so special, then? It’s not the stripped-back, barely-a-budget interior that has changed little since The Emergency, I’m guessing. It’s not the utterly charming and infectiously enthusiastic service. And it’s not just the food, but rather, the whole approach to the food.
It’s locavore, and there’s nothing new about that (I know of restaurants that proudly list their “local” industrial meat processor) but the depth of their interest in proper and mainly local producers is hugely impressive. They list over 25 suppliers.
There’s also the tacit acknowledgement that when you have stuff like this the last thing you want to do is muck around with it. The kitchen in Pilgrim's (which has some DNA from Bristol’s famous garden-focused Ethicurean) lets the flavour of the main ingredient do the talking – at least of most of the time.
The menu starts with nibbles, moves on to what are essentially starters and then mains.
We kicked off with two nibbles: there was tatsuta-age, chunks of local chicken thigh marinated, dusted and deep-fried, tasting intensely of themselves, served with a ponzu dip (think soya sauce meets citrus zest). And then there were what the menu described baldly as “crab, fennel, potato crisp”: four little discs of crisped potato with a nugget of sweet crab meat and finely diced fennel in the centre of each.
This was stunningly good. So pure, so intense, so perfect. We asked for the same again.
We shared a starter of strawberry salad with labneh, the strained sheep’s yoghurt, which came with an elderflower fritter (just bursting into bloom in the hedgerows), sweet glazed walnuts and – brilliant touch this – water mint. Mint and strawberry is a classic partnership but water mint is very distinctive; more peppermint than mint and slightly earthy. This was a thoughtfully rooted dish.
Mains were, surprisingly, something of a mixed bag. Brill with a brilliantly verdant nettle cream studded with tiny lentils, wafter thin slices of fennel and salty anchovies was an exercise in brilliant simplicity, a delight, joy on a plate.
Angus onglet, that unusual cut that needs to be sliced across the grain and which delivers intense beef flavour, had been marinated in apple juice which may have appeared to be a good idea at the time. But when the marinade was reduced (I’m guessing here) and drizzled over the cooked meat, the natural sweetness smothering all beefiness.
Other elements were lovely: lightly whipped wild garlic butter, a peppery salsa verde of watercress and crisp sugar snap peas. But I missed the salty, savoury taste of beef.
Corleggy Cavanbert (and what a great name for a cheese that is) was beautifully presented in greaseproof paper having been warmed through, enhancing the earthy flavour but not compensating entirely for a lack of ripeness. A perfect beetroot and rhubarb chutney cut the richness and crunch was provided by rye crackers.
Our one pudding was brilliantly straightforward, a kind of Cork affogato: Macroom buffalo ricotta ice cream with Golden Bean espresso and – lovely touch – some salted honeycomb.
Pilgrim's is a delight. I can’t think of another restaurant quite like it; it just does its own thing with confidence and conviction and people come, as the name implies, from far and wide for the experience.
Some of my comments here may appear rather nit-picking but I’m just applying the standards which, I’m quite sure, Pilgrim's applies to itself. And I already want to go back.
The bill for our feast – for that is what it was – with good wines, didn’t leave much change out of €150 and it was worth every cent.