Over years of reviewing restaurants I’ve learned that keeping an open mind is a crucial part of the job. Sometime back in the mid 90’s, fo example, I remember pulling up to Eugene O’ Callaghan’s restaurant, somewhere deep in Co. Wexford – a site that really wasn’t that dissimilar to a truck-stop, with a fish and chip shop, a pub and Mr O’ Callaghan’s restaurant.
Walking towards the front door of the restaurant, a couple of Rottweillers jumped up against the metal fence to the side of the entrance - it was one of those times when it would have been easy to get back in the car. Yet the greater memory of that evening is the sublime food that we ate, and Mr O’ Callaghan’s progress since is well documented.
There’s a touch of that perseverance required when visiting Keith Boyle’s Bay Tree Bistro, above the Exchange Bar in Ballybricken, Waterford. There’s no Rottweillers to cope with but you will have to navigate past the smokers at the front door of this busy bar to make your way up to the simple dining room above. After that, just expect your expectations to be confounded.
The menu is really simple – two courses with a glass of wine for €20, or three courses for €25.00. Starters include organic Ballyhale tomato and garden basil soup; a seafood chowder packed with salmon, cod, tiger prawns and smoked haddock, served in an edible tiger bread bowl; or a tasting plate of Dunmore East shellfish served with lemon yoghurt.
I chose a pulled rabbit and serrano ham pithivier which came with a small jug of rabbit jus. This was a dish of extraordinary quality, filled with a rich and satisfying flavour. In fact, to my shame, I immersed myself so deeply in the pleasure of eating the rabbit and pastry that I completely forgot about the jug of gravy. Our other starter of apple and goat's cheese croustade with rooftop leaves and candied hazelnut was wonderfully balanced, even if it didn’t scale the heights of the rabbit – in truth, very little could have matched this dish.
For mains, a piece of fresh sea bass from Billy Burke's fishmongers right across the street was cooked en papillote and served with a pinot grigio velouté and some vegetable tagliatelle, while my main was lamb rump steak cooked at 63 degrees with pea purée, duchesse potato and smoked garlic and mint. The presentation of the sea bass needed a little more finesse but there was no denying the excellence of the cooking, the velouté having a nicely defined flavour to match the perfectly cooked fish.
The lamb was a superb dish of three rump steaks, simple but full of flavour from the slow cooking. A grilled sirloin with tobacco onions and confit flat cap mushrooms is the only dish that requires a supplement to the set price. There were simple and seasonal vegetables included with the mains.
From a choice of just three desserts I couldn’t resist the homemade mini doughnuts. When they arrived each one had a small pipette inserted into it – one filled with warm chocolate sauce, one filled with raspberry and the other filled with custard. A gentle squeeze of the pipette released each filling into the centre of the doughnut, a playful and smile-inducing way to serve them. A poached pear and plum crumble with vanilla ice cream again demonstrated Mr Boyle's ethos of keeping it seasonal.
A quick visit to the kitchen revealed that this food is being produced from scratch by just two people in a tiny boiler-house space. Breads – which were delicious – are made in-house, as was the wonderful buttery pastry surrounding that rabbit. On a flat roof space over the bar, every available space is filled with roof boxes growing edible flowers, herbs and whatever vegetables he can manage – the rest come a from a team of small growers that Mr. Boyle describes as his food heroes.
It’s telling that he mentions the Pennington brothers of The Ethicurian in Bristol when asked about his food influences, and one senses that Mr Boyle’s journey is going to see a similar dedication to local sourcing become more and more focused. I predict that within a short enough space of time The Bay Tree Bistro will be looking for a new, larger home and it’s hard to see how these prices will be sustainable if and when that move happens. But, for now, make your way past the smokers and enjoy inventive, excellent cooking from a chef on a mission.
The Bay Tree Bistro, Above The Exchange Bar, Ballybricken, Waterford City
Opens Friday, Saturday and Sunday Lunch. 051 858517