Campagne in Kilkenny seemed to arrive fully formed when it opened in 2008 – in the midst of an international financial collapse – and it’s a measure of the sure-footed vision of Garrett Byrne and Brid Hannon that the room today feels as fresh as it did seven years ago. It’s one of those restaurants I always feel like dressing up a little bit for, not because the service is in the least bit formal or stuffy, but because it’s such a great place to be and I always look forward to going there.
Campagne food is unashamedly cast from the mould of classic French cookery: duck confit, choucroute and black pudding, red wine, mustard and apple pureé' or free-range chicken with foie gras en croute with peas á la Francaise, are typical of the kind of dishes Mr Byrne revels in creating. He admits to be influenced by father and son team Bernard and Mathieu Pacaud, of Paris’s three star L’Ambroiserie restaurant, something which gives an insight into the scale of the chef’s ambitions for his own cooking.
Among the dishes, we tried a starter of smoked haddock with leeks, a deep-fried egg and some mustard hollandaise, and it was ‘plate-lickingly’ good. Carpaccio of rare tuna with sweet and sour vegetables and a revelatory smoked aubergine purée showed that Mr Byrne can do sharp and light as well as he can do rich and sumptuous. This was further borne out by a sublime piece of poached turbot with cockles and mussels, the fish cooked absolutely perfectly.
Star of the day, however, was grouse breast served with the grouse legs, fresh ceps, Savoy cabbage and blackberry jus. If ever a dish summed up the altar of food that Garrett Byrne worships at, this was it. Rich to the point of hedonism, and yet utterly balanced, it represented cooking of the highest order – hardly surprising that this autumnal special was outselling beef on the menu. The accompanying miniature pot of mash potato bore all the hallmarks of Joel Robuchon’s guidance that mashed potato should contain butter at a ratio of roughly fifty/fifty to the potato. And who am I to complain?
Dessert called for something to revive, perfectly achieved with a deliciously wobbly elderflower jelly served with a honey and yoghurt sorbet, honeycomb and beignets. The room is wonderfully run by Garrett’s partner Brid and a team of friendly staff – a young child at an adjoining table, for example, was presented with her fruit juice in a tall and elegant decanter by a beaming waiter.
Having achieved critical accolades and star status, some chefs might rest on their laurels, working only to retain their plaudits, and cease striving for more. But such is Mr Byrne's love of food – he is a true gourmet – and such is his desire to constantly improve and aspire to greater things, that one feels the story of Campagne is still in the early chapters.