ZUNI HOTEL AND RESTAURANT
26 Patrick Street
Phone: 056 772 3999
Zuni, in the very heart of the medieval city of Kilkenny, is all about modern Irish food. And ace service.
The entire county of Kilkenny has a population just under 100,000; the city of Cork has a population of 120,000 and fewer excellent restaurants. I have no idea why this should be but often find myself wishing that there were a Zuni in the Alternative Capital.
Zuni has been a special part of the medieval city of Kilkenny for as long as I’ve been a regular visitor and like most establishments that pursue excellence, it has always been rather ahead of its time. As far as accommodation is concerned, Zuni must have been amongst the very first truly boutique hotels in the country; and the food, which I first enjoyed at the dawn of this century, was amongst the pioneers in the gradual creation of what we now call “modern Irish”.
One of the benefits of being so far ahead of the posse is that Zuni has a kind of effortless cool about it: the décor never tries too hard, the cooking, by Maria Raftery, is – to use the old quote – art concealing art. In other words, she makes it look easy, which is most certainly isn’t.
The old bar has been converted into a rather splendid space that functions right through the day, starting with breakfast that merges seamlessly with morning coffee, segueing into lunch and finally into tapas and wine in the evenings. This space leads on to the recently extended dining room, as elegant and understated in a contemporary way as the rest of Zuni and where you can see what’s happening in the kitchen.
Well, what happens in Zuni’s kitchen is calmly authoritative. And yes, it’s clear that Zuni was a founder of the “modern Irish” food movement as the menu still name checks excellent producers and does inventive things with them, often with culinary influences that are wildly eclectic yet harnessed with great discipline and judgement.
For example tuna (seared on the outside but cut into rounds that are delightfully raw in the centre) served with strands of crisp pickled cucumber, little dollops of explosively hot wasabi and a generous seasoning of soya sauce and toasted sesame seed oil. This simple dish, eaten on my last visit, was a delight, prettily executed and fully thought through in terms of tastes and textures, a theme that seems to run through the cooking at Zuni. Punchy flavours are very much part of what they do here.
The menu is reassuring telegramic (by which I mean it comprises bald statements of what’s going to be on the plate, leaving room for your imagination to work) and there’s no cheffy faffing about with nomenclature; risotto balls are called just that, not arancini.
A blood orange ice cream and slice of chocolate parfait, geometrically perfect, glistening with its semi-liquid dark chocolate coating that would not be out of place in any Michelin-starred establishment, lives on in my memory. There is clearly a very talented pastry chef in the kitchen.
What else makes Zuni, well, Zuni? I think it’s a certain confidence, a savoir faire that allows them to keep it simple, stripped back, just right. And the service is ace.