AND so we return once more to Kenmare, or Neidín, as I’ve thought about it for decades since a Jimmy McCarthy song, a tearful but lingering melody made famous by Mary Black for the first time in my head a while ago several decades . It wouldn’t have been my first choice on the jukebox, to put it politely, but in another youthful life I worked as a roadie for the great Irish singer and heard the song night after night after night after night…in the end, resistance proved futile.
I’ve been coming here since my teens, initially “camping” under the starlight to attend the Cibeal Cincíse bacchanalian arts festivals, gradually raising the standard of my accommodation over the years, but the sense of anticipation remains the same , especially if you avoid the functional convenience of the main road and divert to Ballyvourney for an infinitely more basic hike to the top of Coom.
It’s a beautiful September evening: cool, dry, autumnal and, backed by a splendid Negroni served by Brian O’Connor across the road in John and Francis Brennan’s latest project, the Lansdowne Hotel recently renovated, reinvented as a stylish boutique hotel, all is well with the world, a welcome illusion on this currently crazy planet.
The word “jewel” was surely coined for No. 35 because it’s such a tiny space, tables strewn about nooks and crannies and cubbyholes over two floors, but the dim lighting of the parquet floors, panels ceiling beams and the rugged gray stone walls lend instant comfort, an all-encompassing intimacy that has us rubbing our hands in joyous anticipation, further heightened when the offspring spend a few dollars on takeout instead and return to the hotel room to spend some quality time alone with their digital overlords.
Two starters jump out at us: Octopus, with Chickpeas, Chorizo and Piquillo Peppers and Beets, with Vanilla, Crozier Bleu, Red Chard and Candied Walnuts; we order both.
But I also order Saddleback pork sausage, kimchi, scallions, cilantro, because any pork offering at #35 is particularly unique. I don’t usually eat pork in restaurants because I don’t care about meat from factory-farmed pigs. From an ethical point of view, their confinement conditions are inhumane and, moreover, result in a poor end product, the taste of which is vastly inferior to that of pigs raised correctly in the open air.
There are other restaurants offering free-range pork, and while I’m sometimes suspicious of the authenticity of its provenance, the pork at No. 35 is particularly special, Dermot Brennan’s Kenmare Free Range Pork.
You see, Dermot Brennan is the owner of No 35, as well as his ‘mothership’ across town, another splendid four-star boutique hotel, Brook Lane. These are the only two restaurants in Ireland to serve their own free range pork and in my opinion that alone is worth the trip. A small herd of sows means a limited supply; when they run out, it’s off the menu.
The octopus dish is very pleasant, tender meat, nutty legumes, sweet peppers, good textures and flavors all around; the beet dish is even better, an array of sugars, from the earthy tuber to vanilla and candied walnuts and, stopping any descent into sickly saccharine, salty-sweet Crozier Blue, still my preference over its more renowned lactic brother, Cashel Blue. But the sausage (handmade by Dermot Brennan) is something else entirely, succulent and deeply flavorful meat, just seasoned, bearing the sweet anise of fennel, tart kimchi and charred shallot adding a crunch. contrast; simple but absolutely superb.
SpouseGirl has seared turbot for main course, caramelized in butter, tender flesh that flakes on the fork, served with melty mashed potatoes, spinach and peas, very nice indeed but I give it a little trouble, all eyes on my pork belly, served with another of my favorite ingredients, puy lentils; alongside, Granny Smith apple “jam”. The flavors are deep, plumbing depths still beyond the reach of industrial pork, but one caveat, I would have preferred more belly fat, as it still has more natural flavor than any sauce or salsa can never muster.
SpouseGirl has an excellent Crème Caramel, although accompanying the compressed strawberry, good on its own, throws a jarring tart note in an incompatible marriage with the lush pastry cream.
I have always treaded warily on the subject of chocolate and fruit, especially pears, but the Poire Belle Hélène is an Escoffier classic, so it would be rude not to join the party on the plate which is a poached pear, enamelled with slivered almonds, drizzled with salted butter caramel chocolate and served with a good vanilla ice cream topped with a sensational sesame tuile. I’m still not entirely convinced by the pear chocolate but a completely empty plate would suggest otherwise.
A hesitant step in an otherwise confidently assured gallop at night is a very underperforming wine list, not a single bottle, red or white, able to pair well with pork dishes, a cardinal sin when it comes to is such a crucial and unique piece of chef Tony Schwarz’s The Beautiful Offering. However, the current roster is falling victim to repeated lockdowns, withering on the vine, if you’ll forgive me the pun, and is, thankfully, being resurrected in the very immediate future.
Restaurant manager and butler Neil Hynes deserves a special mention. A consummate old-school professional (literally, as he’s Cert-trained for a career in hospitality), he runs the house impeccably, with speed, efficiency and a keen eye for detail that belies his training and experience, styled with an effortless, effortless wit and charm all its own.
Our very enjoyable night adds to the overall magic of another splendid stay in Kenmare and a few blissful days later as we begin the slow and painful process of extraction, driving wistfully, reluctantly out of town, into direction Cork Road, there he is once more, that old earworm, spinning around in my head: ‘When I leave Neidín behind, it’s like splashed purple on green.’