This is a review I wrote for the Irish Mail on Sunday, last August, 2015. Pilgrim’s is a very fine little restaurant based in Rosscarbery, in West Cork, owned and operated by chef Mark Jennings and his partner, Sarah-Jane Pearce, who runs front of house. It took just a single meal for it to be instantly installed as one of my most favourite dining establishments around, offering some genuinely original interpretations of superb local, seasonal produce in a wonderfully zen-filled setting.
South Square, Rosscarbery, West Cork
Tel +353 (023) 883 1796
Opening Hours: Wednesday – Saturday 6-10pm Sunday 1-4pm
Four Stars ****
Reviewed by Joe McNamee
First, to forestall cavilling at perceived parochialism in reviewing restaurants with Cork postcodes two weeks in a row, it should be noted West Cork is an entirely different entity to the rest of the county. Actually, make that the rest of the country. Many insist it is actually the 33rd county in Ireland, a delightfully deranged duchy with a multiplicity of tribes, permanent and transient, all co-existing after a fashion in God’s favourite slice of heaven.
It is also the birthplace of the modern Irish food movement, where Irish cheesemaker Veronica Steele began experimenting in the 1970s with the excess milk from her cow, Brisket. She eventually arrived at her renowned Milleens Cheese, and in the process, along with a doughty group of other likeminded ‘blow-ins’ from Ireland and abroad, kickstarted a producer-led food movement that decades later is the backbone of the now-emerging New Irish Cuisine.
Blow-ins from Europe are not a new phenomenon in West Cork. During the Dark Ages, Ireland’s monastic universities were rare beacons across the entire continent and the School of Ross, founded by St Fachtna, attracted scholars from all over, hence Rosscarbery’s original name, Ros-Ailithir, or The Wood of the Pilgrims.
Considering West Cork’s epicurean history, it is something of an irony that, save a few scattered outposts, it has been very hard of late to find original or innovative cooking, many establishments struggling to even feature the superb local produce. Even a simple local cheeseboard (for example, Milleens, Gubbeen, Durrus, Coolea, all top international award-winners) is disappointingly rare.
Newly-opened Pilgrim’s at least has promising pedigree. Maitre D’ Sarah-Jane Pearce and Chef Mark Jennings are West Cork natives, from Kilbrittan and Belgooly, respectively. In local terms, that is sufficiently far away to qualify them too as blow-ins but they know the territory, important when local food, foraged and cultivated, is a cornerstone of your ethos and their list of producer-suppliers goes way beyond mere tokenism. Furthermore, Jennings’ extensive experience includes time as head chef at Cork’s Café Paradiso and 12 months at the highly acclaimed UK restaurant, The Ethicurean.
The room may be spartan, plain pine furniture and a flagged floor, but it is airy and light-filled with some tasteful artwork, a serene, welcoming space from which to view through grand old windows the evening’s summertime shenanigans.
The menu is concise, just three options (one meat, one fish, one vegetarian) on each course. We get right down to business with ‘Nibbles’. ‘Nibbles’ are not the little ramekins of spiced cashews or mixed olives, supplied gratis. Nor are they the soda breads accompanied by miso butter so outrageously flavoursome, if it were spread on plywood, I’d still eat it by the yard. At Pilgrim’s, ‘Nibbles’ is a precursor to ‘Starters’, another course entirely; professional to the furthest reaches of my bulging waistband, I order same.
Courgette & Chickpea Dip with Flax Crackers features dutifully deferential homemade crackers; mindful of their station, they add sufficient texture without attempting to outshine the creamy lead player. The other nibble, Tatsuta Age chicken, however, threatens to derail the entire evening’s dining.
Chicken goujons are generally an abomination, a penance for the pre-pubescent and all part of the misguided notion that children aren’t proper humans and therefore not deserving of actual food.
In this Japanese recipe, the chicken (here, Shehymore Freerange, a sublime starting point for any chicken dish) is marinaded in soy, sake, mirin and ginger, then coated in katakuriko (a starch flour, potato or corn) and fried. Ludicrously delicious, the eating is best left to the imagination; suffice to say, when a 50-year-old man nearly comes to blows with his 5-year-old daughter before then forming an unholy alliance against spouse/mother and son/brother, we are dealing with a highly addictive foodstuff.
I am still rolling out the gammy leg excuse, beloved spouse once more The Driver to my Miss Daisy, but, on foot of a sip of my fruity 2010 Herdade do Esporao, 4 Quatro Castas, from Portugal, she demands half the bottle be corked for later consumption back at base camp. Fair enough as it is an excellent bottle from a short but very good list.
A starter of Hot-Smoked Mackerel, Beetroot Carpaccio, Tamarind Dressing, Crushed Peanuts, has The Driver operating at full throttle. I scavenge from the fringes, sweet oily fish, thin slices of earthy beetroot, a piquant chilli flourish, but my share is scant. I thought you didn’t like mackerel, I pout. The Driver is mute, eyes glazed with euphoria. My compensation is Tomatoes, Macroom Mozzarella, Broadbeans, Basil, Kale Crisps, Citrus, a fresh, clean array of splendid local goodies.
The Driver’s main of Turbot, Courgette, Cherry Tomato & Caper Salsa, Crushed Potatoes features fine fish, well-cooked and ennervated by a bright salsa. My 12-Hour Pork Belly, Black Kale, Salt Baked Beetroot & Relish, Pickled Rhubarb is a monster of a dish and my (not unwelcome) burden increases with a side of muscular and deeply-flavoured smoked potatoes.
Desserts of Cacao Cremeaux, Chocolate Crunch, Milk Ice, Mint Raspberries and Strawberry Lavender Baked Alaska are delicate and very pleasant creations and blessedly light for bursting bellies.
As fine an interpretation of wondrous West Cork produce as I’ve experienced in some time and featuring some excellent cooking at very keen prices, Pilgrim’s is an epicurean enlightenment for which even St Fachtna would relish breaking his daily fast.