Paolo Tullio's Review
The Victorians had a very clear world view and man's place in it was unquestionable - man was the Crown of Creation. Mankind was set apart from the rest of creation not just by virtue of his God-given place, but because only man had intelligence and only man had language. Man was unique in the universe
The twentieth century has laid these ideas to rest, as we discovered animal languages in whales, great apes and even in birds. It's increasingly clear that life too is not unique to this planet, that the most likely scenario is life-forms throughout the universe. A Victorian today might find himself troubled by this new perception of man's place in the cosmos, but there is one thing that he could take comfort from. Man is unique in one thing - man is the only animal that cooks his food.
Civilisation and cooking go hand in hand. Great civilisation and great food is the natural order of evolution. Civilised societies put emphasis on their cuisine because it's integral to defining how far from raw nature they have come. It's not just lack of fresh water and electricity that makes countries third world', it's the quality of their cookery as well.
You might think that celebrity chefs are a new phenomenon, but the last time Europe had a highly evolved civilisation - Imperial Rome - celebrity chefs abounded. Apicius and Petronius describe fabulous feasts created by chefs whose celebrity in Roman society matched that of the gladiators. Rich Romans competed for the great chefs, offering them huge sums of money for their skills. Funny how little the world has changed.
It's a measure of our new-found wealth and cultural status that celebrity chefs are now part of life in the new Ireland. TV shows have brought these chefs into our homes and made them household names. There is one celebrity chef whose food I'd so far never tasted, and that is Kevin Dundon. I've met him a few times, mostly on TV shows, and found him knowledgeable and charming, so I was looking forward to my trip to Dunbrody House in Arthurstown to sample Kevin's kitchen.
I know now not to believe my sat-nav when it offers a route to Arthurstown. Never mind going to New Ross, if you're coming from the north go as far as the Duncannon Roundabout outside Wexford town on the N11 and then take the Southeast Coastal Drive, which takes you directly to Arthurstown and Dunbrody House. A long wooded drive leads you up to an imposing three-storey house, once the seat of the Chichester-Clarkes.
It's ten years now since Kevin and his wife Catherine bought Dunbrody House and since then they've added bedrooms, a cookery school, a spa, and very soon now a champagne and seafood bar. But I'd come with Marian Kenny to dine, and so we took our table in a fine, dark red room with full-length windows overlooking the gardens.
It's quite a formal room in its layout; large tables with starched napery, beautiful floral displays and of course, the room's classical proportions. But as Irish country houses do so well, the service is both professional and friendly, which gives the room a welcoming feel.
The menu is table d'hôte, and perhaps its greatest strength is its seasonality. Food miles won't be much of an issue either, as Dunbrody has a large kitchen garden that produces most of restaurant's vegetables. You can choose from a tasting menu at 75, or the table d'hôte which costs 60 for the full dinner or any two courses for 48. There's a choice of seven starters including an open raviolo of red mullet and broad beans, a seasonal green salad, loin of rabbit with a morel mousse, a foie gras terrine with confit duck, caramelised Dunmore scallops, soup and home-made gravadlax. Main courses offered fillet of beef, glazed belly of pork, baked cod, pithivier of mushrooms and Gubeen cheese, pan-seared turbot and loin of venison.
The wine list is average in length, but what endeared it to me was the modest mark-up. Marian drinks only white wine, so I chose the Montagny Premier Cru from Château de la Saule, which was priced at a very reasonable 34.
We started with the gravadlax for Marian and the scallops for me. The gravadlax was superb; thin slices served with a wasabi crème fraiche and a spring roll made with smoked salmon. The scallops were beautifully cooked and came with creamed sweet corn and watercress, a combination I enjoyed. So far, so good.
The main courses didn't let us down. Marian's char-grilled fillet was as good as you'd expect, but the little pot of oxtail cottage pie that came with it was delightful. My venison tasted the way most people like it - not gamey and tasting more like beef than venison. Sitting below the venison was a tiny tarte tatin of red onion and the whole sat on a cauliflower purée flavoured with thyme. Both very good dishes.
We finished with one dessert between us, the raspberry parfait with a berry compôte, a well-made dessert that finished what had been a very good meal. What Dunbrody offers apart from it's elegant surroundings, is food that is essentially Irish. Very fresh, locally sourced ingredients are prepared and cooked with skill, but aren't over elaborated. There's an underlying simplicity and respect for the ingredients that I really liked.
If you've seen Kevin Dundon on any of his many TV appearances, you'll have seen his passion shine through. Last year he compiled many of his recipes into a book, Full on Irish', which is a pretty good description of what he's doing foodwise in Dunbrody. You can check out the restaurant, the cookery school, room rates, and spa treatments on www.dunbrodyhouse.com.