Fare city Known as one of the country’s best foodie destinations, vibrant Kilkenny surely lived up to its reputation
As every coffee lover knows, there’s an art to the perfect cappuccino. So what better spot to enjoy one on a crisp spring morning than in an art gallery?
Set in Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, Muse Coffee+Food may be surrounded by works by giants of Irish art such as Jack B Yeats and Tony O’Malley, but after the hour-and-a-half drive from Dublin, I’m just as mesmerised by the picture-perfect latte art floating atop my first coffee of the day, maybe even more so.
Located on Barrack Lane, the 19th century building began life as an almshouse, providing shelter to domestic servants who’d fallen on hard times.
The cafe’s giant sash windows proved useful, as it offered a sort of modern-day respite to locals by remaining open for takeaway throughout lockdown.
It’s the perfect pitstop to begin our whistle-stop tour of the Marble City just as Taste Kilkenny Restaurant Week, hosted in conjunction with Kilkenny Tourism, was winding down last month.
Popping out of the kitchen to say hello, Dubliner Sharon Quinn shares how she swapped a career in finance to pursue her dream of opening her own place in her adopted hometown, complete with a handful of cute outdoor dining pods. It’s the type of story you hear all over the vibrant city now as it continues to grow its reputation as one of the country’s best foodie destinations.
Better known as a stag or hen’s hotspot in the past, today Kilkenny is just as much about eating as drinking, with award-winning local produce, farmers’ markets, walking foodie tours, and even a Michelin-starred restaurant among the top draws.
Campagne, and head chef Garrett Byrne, may have put the medieval city on the map, but there are plenty more keeping it there — if the horde of hungry tourists from all over the world catching the last day of the festival is anything to go by.
We manage to nab a table for two for an early dinner in popular restaurant Rive Gauche, just across The Parade from Kilkenny Castle, which is buzzing even at 5pm on the last Saturday before the remaining Covid restrictions were finally lifted.
The mish-mash of framed pictures covering virtually every inch of red brick to our left and right mightn’t make it onto the walls of the Butler Gallery. But, along with the wall of wines from around the world, they provided an entertaining distraction while we waited for our roasted artichoke and butternut tart, and plate of West Cork scallops and North Atlantic prawns to arrive.
Not that there was long to wait in the French-style bistro with an Irish flair, as the attentive staff waltzed from table to table, bringing sweet slabs of Guinness bread and butter and whisking away empty wine glasses.
Still, I wondered if Jack Nicholson realises he’s grinning down from a restaurant wall in Kilkenny. Such little touches make a huge difference during any type of escape from the daily grind. Or in the case of the Pembroke Hotel, where we were staying for the night, touch-free little touches.
After checking into the four-star property, a short stroll from High Street, we hopped into a lift to our third-floor bedroom, operated by waving your key card in front of one box to go up, and waving your hand in front of another box to go down. I argued it was a safety measure to stop guests from mauling the buttons during the pandemic.
My friend argued it was a safety measure to stop guests from getting off on the wrong floor after one too many nightcaps. I suspect we were both right.
Let’s just say it didn’t hurt after we returned from an evening sampling the extensive cocktail menu at Paris Texas. During my last trip to Kilkenny in 2020, I had enjoyed a tex-mex feast at the hopping bar and restaurant on the city’s famed Medieval Mile, but made a mental note to some day soon return to try out the busy cocktail station opposite our table.
Indeed, it would take several visits to work your way through a boozy list, spanning the globe from a Cuba Libre to a Shanghai Breeze via a Lynchburg Lemonade. Feeling a little fancy on my first night out in forever, I settle on one of the Pornstar Martinis that are flying out of the bar.
More usually a G&T girl, I’m not embarrassed to admit that it took Google’s help to establish whether I should neck the accompanying shot of Prosecco before or after the pretty pink explosion of vodka and passion fruit.
In the end, I settled on the school of thought that maintains you should sip it in between mouthfuls to offset the drink’s sweetness. It took a shot of a different kind to counter the side effects of a night out in the bustling city, before a Sunday morning rummage through its historic laneways and antique shops.
Breakfast, served in Statham’s farm-to-fork restaurant, was prefaced by a welcome spread, including a ‘vitality’ shot bursting with watermelon, freshly squeezed orange juice and mini croissants.
Presented on eye-catching tableware by Nicholas Mosse, whose studio is based in the nearby village of Bennettsbridge, it’s just another of those small but thoughtful details I was talking about.
Chef Ken Harker’s evening menu, starring local heroes like Ballymakenny potato gnocchi and Ballykeefe Irish coffee tiramisu, is already on my wishlist for a return visit.
In fact, foodies can already start planning their next trip to the south-east for Savour Kilkenny Food Festival, running from October 27–31 this year, with a programme set to feature demonstrations by celebrity chefs, mouth-watering food markets and lots of great restaurant deals.
There’s just time to refuel with some locally roasted coffee and a sweet treat at Canal Square before making the journey home. Overlooking the River Nore, you won’t find a better a people-watching spot in the whole of the city. We grab one of the coveted tables by the window on the first floor while indulging in a warm, caramelly apple crumble with a melty blob of vanilla ice cream.
On the street below, two young boys are also enthusiastically tucking into 99s the size of their heads, while their parents sip on well-deserved takeaway coffees, and a bouncy red setter pup prays for one of the chocolate flakes to fall to the ground.
It’s that snapshot of families across the country enjoying life together again that’s maybe the sweetest thing of all.
■ PEMBROKE Kilkenny hotel offers a ‘Foodie Heaven’ package, including dinner and breakfast, starting from €209 for one night or €363 for two nights, based on two people sharing midweek. See pembrokekilkenny.com.
■ SAVOUR Kilkenny Food Festival runs from October 27-31, 2022. Keep updated at savourkilkenny.com or follow @savourkilkenny.
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