We’re as giddy as children as we approach Restaurant Chestnut, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the West Cork village of Ballydehob famous for jazz, quirky pubs, and a boggling propensity to attract great people who want to make great food.
What lies in store beyond the doors of the whitewashed building, once a pub but now home to Rob Krawczyk one of Ireland’s most accomplished chefs, deserves such levels of anticipation.
Coming in from the cold, a warm welcome awaits. Elaine Fleming, Rob’s partner in business as well as life, holds court front of house. This could be your first time or tenth time dining here and the welcome would be the same; attentive and enquiring, personable.
The interior makes use of the old bar, only now shelves are lined with fastidiously curated selections of wines and spirits. Ferments, syrups, and decoctions sit comfortably alongside, and there are pickles and preserves in sparkling jars all around. It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff, and I half expect these jars and bottles to be necklaced with labels that invite to Drink Me or Eat Me.
This is where your culinary adventure begins. We eat with our eyes first, or so we are told; our first encounter with the food ethos of Restaurant Chestnut starts in the heart of it – the timely transformation of ingredients; the preservation of foraged flavours.
The overture sings simply enough from the menu: “Bread & Butter.” But this is warm bread made with organic heritage wheat from Ballymore Organics and the butter, cultured in house, is crowned with golden salt and a single marigold petal. It’s a course in its own right, proving the simplicity of Irish wheat and cultured butter is the only way to begin a meal that champions what is absolutely the best about Irish food.
Krawczyk has Polish roots and with it a learned food heritage that embraces seasonality, wild food, and preservation. Frank Krawczyk long earned his place amongst the artisanal food producer’s hall of fame for his gift with cured meats. These traits are part of Rob’s DNA, too; a father and son team working together to source, cure and transform exquisite locally reared meat into decadent morsels.
Slow grown heritage breed pigs that feast on seaweed and root as nature intended results in almost translucent slices of lardo that exude flavours that transport the diner directly to woodlands that tumble towards the ocean: salty, floral, earthy, sweet, nutty.
We briefly leave the wooded realm and stretch our legs along the breezy coastline dotted with sea pinks, courtesy of more snacks: thin veils of rosewater cured celeriac and beetroot; brick pastry ‘tacos’ filled with sweet yielding lobster, peppery radish, and fresh green-apple flavours of kohlrabi.
Next, buttery toasted brioche topped with bacon made from their own Oxford Sandy & Black pigs, a hint of mustard mayo and finished with the rich lactic tang of Rockfield Sheep’s Cheese. It is a taste I would walk over hot coals to eat again and again. Our server agrees – “I always wish there are a few of these left over after service,” he whispers. “I don’t blame you,” we whisper back.
The signature dish of Roaring Water Bay Mussels and Caviar – two types, including the vivid salmon-coloured trout roe from Goatsbridge in Kilkenny that nestles like hidden treasure within an ink-black tapioca cracker.
The palate-cleansing Granita changes with the seasons. In November, it pays homage to Ireland’s wild plum, the Damson. I plunge my spoon through a cloud of sherbet dusted with lemon verbena salt to the rich plum-coloured depths and retrieve a granita that is not shy of puckering whiskey.
As our liminal journey shifts between land and sea, next comes meaty monkfish obscenely festooned with Irish Truffle – a new ingredient that happily has the pungency volume set to low. It still delivers funky umami notes, but without obfuscating the tune played by monkfish, fennel, and a chicken glaze lifted with tangy whey acidity.
If we had spent the previous eight courses meandering through a variety of flavour landscapes, Venison & Sunchoke was where we landed unequivocally in a dense autumnal forest. Saddle of Kerry venison, aged just long enough for powerful gamey flavours to mellow and cooked over embers, matched the velvety smokiness of Jerusalem artichoke puree. Damson puree, beetroot, and blueberries from Derry Duff Blueberry Farm in Bantry, a harmony of sweet flavours – tart, earthy and fruity. Crispy kale, peppery nasturtium leaves, wild garlic oil, and a rich flowing sauce made from venison bones…
If there was a dish that could stand out from a menu burdened with an embarrassment of riches, this was it. Every mouthful invoking an image of Rob and his father walking the woods together, talking, sharing stories, picking wild garlic and damson, maybe crossing paths with a deer. This is food that is both art and without artifice; it summons nostalgia and is the lense which this chef views his world through food.
Three courses of sweets send us looking for honey and all things sweet from the forest and fields. A sherbet made of Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Yogurt and lemon verbena sits upon deep green savoury dill oil, garnished with citric wood sorrel and capped with a clear frost of sugar lattice.
The celebration of the honeybee that is Honey & Toffee delivers a feather-light sabayon flavoured with house-fermented West Cork honey, bee pollan and meadowsweet. A remarkable garnish of a maple leaf shaped hazelnut tuille is finished with edible 24-carat gold.
Far from instilling notions, I wish the dining room would empty so I can continue scraping the bowl in the vein hope this experience never ends. The encore is a duo of sweets – a sugar encrusted blackberry jelly and The Chestnut, a tempered dark chocolate shell filled with rich chocolate ganache and topped with gold sugar.
Only then does our journey end, and we find ourselves heading back through the door and out into the dark quiet of a silent village and the chilly November air. Was this how the fictional children of Narnia felt every time they passed through the wardrobe doors into a magical realm? No, of course not; as far as I remember, they didn’t have Rob Krawczyk guiding them. Lucky us.
Restaurant Chestnut offers a wine pairing, but also now a non-alcoholic wine pairing. Both are highly recommended to accompany your meal. There is a purposefulness to both, particularly the non-alcoholic pairing where a glass of 2-day distilled Tomato Water, Whey & Elderflower, Rosehip, or the bold full-bodied flavours of Red Grape, Beetroot and Pomegranate Juice compliment dishes with mouth-tingling relish.
Opening: Restaurant Chestnut will close for a winter break from December 19th to early March 2022. Maximum capacity is 26 seats across two floors. Current winter schedule and social distancing means capacity is running at 14 seats. Book online at www.restaurantchestnutwestcork.ie.
The Chestnut Tree
WRITTEN BY KATE RYAN – FLAVOUR.IE