Click here for a more recent review of Lady Helen.
We have been promising to get out of Dublin a bit more this year and sample more restaurants from around the country. Well, finally we made a couple of journeys down to Kilkenny to try Lady Helen at Mount Juliet and Campagne near the centre of Kilkenny.
First up was a night in Mount Juliet. We like staycations and take one several times a year, so the idea of going to a beautiful hotel, with one of the best golf courses in Ireland plus the possibility of an excellent restaurant was an exciting prospect.
Driving up the long avenue towards Mount Juliet House it is easy to see that the grounds are being well cared for - something that cannot be said for other resorts of this type in Ireland over the last few years. Mount Juliet House itself still has the old world charm and luxury. Our room was extremely comfortable and well furnished, but with the odd sign of ageing creeping in. The staff throughout the hotel were friendly and welcoming. All this got our hopes up for a great meal when we went down for dinner in the front room of this old Georgian Manor house.
In a hotel that has kept the feeling of a bygone time, with their beautifully preserved lobby, bar and drawing rooms, you would be forgiven for expecting the food to be traditional and maybe even a bit safe. But the food in Lady Helen Restaurant was more modern than the surroundings.
Many courses were seasonal and, in the main, light, fresh and befitting of a hot summer's night. The first two courses demonstrated this well. An elevated beetroot and goats cheese salad was a great start, but despite being served with some well measured components, maybe needed a little something extra to lift it to more than just a beetroot and goats cheese salad. The next course was just as good, but with lobster that was just a little tough and not as soft as it should be.
The best dish was maybe the most technical and most challenging. Turbot, foie gras and beluga lentils are not easy ingredients to marry. It would be easy for the turbot to get lost with the foie gras and, even more so, with the strong taste of lentils. But the delicate fish with the high quality, almost sweet, foie gras, worked wonderfully with the earthiness of the lentils.
The next dish divided our opinion slightly. We agreed that the duck breast was perfectly cooked and beautifully tender, but it was the accompaniments that had us squabbling. Bulgar wheat, Ras el Hanout and rhubarb was, for one of us, too sharp and powerful for the duck, but, for the other, worked very well. You will have to make your own mind up on that one!
The two desserts on our tasting menu were very good. A baked lemon cream was light and cleansing, served with lovely a goats curd parfait. We usually are not a fan of fruit sorbets with a lemon based dessert, but the raspberry sorbet worked, especially with the yuzu gel. A second dessert of strawberries (farmed and wild) and pistachio was summery and light - a nice end to a meal.
The amuse bouche of lobster veloute and crab cake was just ok. A carrot sorbet and mandarin jelly was clever and the petit fours were excellent.
The use of seasonal regional food was scattered throughout the menu, with beetroot, rhubarb, strawberries, lobster all making an appearance. These combined well with international ingredients like lentils, foie gras, mandarin, pistachio and yuzu.
In all it was a very good meal without many errors. However there was lack of 'wow' in some of the dishes and we left thinking that it was a little bit reserved. The skill and technique in the kitchen is clear and seemingly abundant, so there maybe still room for the food to be pushed that a little bit further. But, we will certainly be back.
Our second visit in Kilkenny was to Campagne - a restaurant near the heart of Kilkenny serving French food. The food here ranged between good and poor. The starters, one of Foie Gras and one of Quail were of high quality, with the quail in particular being perfectly cooked, showing a lightness of touch and finesse.
The desserts were not too bad either. A passion fruit and chocolate Chiboust was refreshing, but a little bit annoying to eat as the chocolate layer was thick and hard to cut through. It was also large and got a little bit boring after a while. The other dessert of chocolate tarte, vanilla ice cream and raspberries was tasty, but unremarkable.
It was the two very poor main courses that let Campagne down though. Duck that was overcooked served with tasteless baby turnips and salty cabbage. The dish was redeemed slightly by a very nice duck sausage. The other main was Herefood Beef which was unevenly cooked - ordered rare, but was rare in parts and medium in others. The mains were served with terrible, grainy mashed potatoes - the sort that were served by Irish housewives up and down the country, but shouldn't be seen anywhere near a professional kitchen.
Campagne, at best, is a good bistro with excellent staff and worth a visit if you find yourself in the Kilkenny for the night, but it would be hard for us to return to Kilkenny and not stay in Mount Juliet.