In Kilkenny with Rocco, Paolo has nothing but praise for Zuni.
The restaurant is at the back of building so you walk through the hotel reception area into a large rectangular room, decorated in clean lines and divided by large leather-covered screens. The tables are larger than is normal in Dublin restaurants, the seats are comfortable. One of the long sides of the room is opened to the kitchen through a large service counter, and from where we sat we had a fine view of a kitchen hard at work.
Certainly the menu looked interesting. The starters were all priced under €10, except for the scallops and the prawns at €11.95. A mushroom soup, a smoked salmon risotto cake, pasta with goats' cheese and mushrooms, battered prawns, a Parma ham salad and scallops in beurre blanc. As we looked around us at the other tables, we could see that these dishes were also elegantly presented. The main courses were priced from €22 to €29 and included spiced duck breast, tandoori cod, braised lamb shank, teriyaki salmon, pasta with seafood and smoked salmon, a vegetable risotto, chicken Maryland with corn cakes and char gilled steaks, both fillet and sirloin.
The wine list is modest enough, with some fifty or so wines listed. That sounds like plenty, but when you take away the very expensive and the very cheap wines, the middle ground was a little thin. Unfortunately for Rocco he's allergic to wine, so while he ordered a Guinness, I turned to the half-bottles and found the excellent Marques de Riscal Reserva 2000 at €17.95, which is drinking superbly now with that bottle age. It smelt so good that Rocco risked a sip, exclaiming it's wine like that that I miss.' It's tragic to be allergic to something you really like.
For starters Rocco had ordered the scallops, which came with a mesclun salad composed of really tasty rocket. The scallops themselves were cooked just so; tender and subtly flavoured in the beurre blanc. I'd ordered the salmon risotto cake, which was like a large suppli, a rice ball that's been breaded and deep fried. I really enjoyed this dish, there was a hint of wasabi in the cake that blended perfectly with the cucumber and smoked salmon. It was an original and very successful dish.
For main course Rocco had the tandoori cod, which came with roasted vegetables and minted yoghurt. The tandoori had given the cod a red tinge and just as with the starters, the flavourings were delicately used. I'd ordered the lamb shank, which perfectly displayed that phrase it fell off the bone it was so tender. I'll describe its appearance, because it was a good example of how dishes are presented in Zuni. There was a base of mashed potato around which a port wine jus was drizzled; it was topped with buttered leaf spinach and on top of that the lamb shank was placed nearly vertically, a sprig of rosemary protruding from the bone. The effect was a tall dish, of the kind that Conrad Gallagher made famous, and which we don't often see any more.
By this stage in our meal, when four out of four dishes had been well made, nicely presented and efficiently served, we found ourselves in that rare condition of comfortable ease after a meal. It also meant that whereas we would normally have stopped right there, we were tempted enough to try a dessert between us. We chose a lemon meringue tart, which was well made and good. Two espressos completed the meal.
I was well pleased with Zuni. It's always a pleasure to find a restaurant that tries hard and serves good food, but Zuni rises a step above that by making good food with imaginative twists. Couple this with brisk service and a pleasing room and you get a recipe that's hard to improve on.