A little gem

Posted on: 4th August, 2015

Category: Food & Wine

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Already lauded by John and Sally McKenna, who described Pilgrim’s as being “the talk of West Cork” in their guide ‘10 Holiday Secrets’, the innovative menu at Pilgrim’s also made quite an impression on Ballymaloe’s Darina Allen, who featured it recently as her ‘Find of the Week’ in the Irish Examiner, describing Sarah-Jane Pearce and chef Mark Jennings (formerly of The Ethicurean in Bristol, and Café Paradiso in Cork) as “An exciting young team”.

Sarah-Jane and Mark describe Pilgrim’s quite modestly on their website as ‘serving a seasonally crafted ever-changing daily menu’. But as the comments from the well-respected food professionals above indicate, Pilgrim’s is a whole lot more.

The space is enticing — rustic with a touch of the minimalist, but not clinically so. A former student of Art and Photography, Sarah-Jane has shown her flair for design here. Chunky wooden tables, white walls, impressive and tasteful pieces of art, natural stone floors, pretty flowers adorning tables (from the gardens of friends and family) and herbs drying on the wall collaborate to create the warmth of a country kitchen — somewhere that invites you to sit around the table with friends and family and enjoy good food, chat and laughter. It’s the type of place that feeds the soul as well as the belly.

Sarah-Jane and Maria are gracious and attentive front-of-house hosts; nothing is too much trouble and families with children are made to feel very welcome. “The favourite part of our jobs is serving a wonderful audience who share the same love for food as we do,” says Sarah-Jane.

The menu at Pilgrim’s changes frequently, featuring whatever is in season. The couple’s walks in the countryside or along the coast regularly involve some foraging as well, from bilberries found on a ditch in Reenascreena to Samphire picked off the rocks in a local cove. “We love being able to use the products available around us,” says Sarah-Jane, “we’re creating our own wild food map of the area.”

“If the wet weather continues we’ll have plenty of mushrooms,” adds Mark smiling.

At the time of writing, Nibbles on the menu included such delights as ‘Tatsuta age (sweet chicken), chilli mayo’ and ‘Mangetout, cashew cream, chilli + thyme’; ‘Ham hock, tomato, egg, sauerkraut, mustard butter, breadcrumbs’ featured on the Starters; and ‘Baby black sole tidal greens, new potatoes, saffron pistachio butter’ beckoned from the Mains. The pressed lamb shoulder easily wooed meat eaters and there was plenty of choice for vegans and vegetarians. You’ll find meadowsweet and Cork dry gin in some of the desserts! Although not a nut-free kitchen, special dietary requirements are accommodated and even welcomed by a chef who enjoys a challenge.

Mark gained experience working with raw food in Australia, where the semi-tropical climate encouraged a raw food lifestyle. “We had an abundance of things like cashews and coconuts and cherry tomatoes grew there like a weed.” From Mark’s experience in working in the raw food café, he is using equipment such as dehydrators and blenders to experiment with different textures and flavours in the restaurant.

Texture plays an important part on the menu at Pilgrim’s. “It’s important to have some crunch and not too much salt at the start of a menu,” explains Mark, “followed by Umami flavour (the savoury or meaty taste) in the mains. It’s all about balance.”

Mark’s main passion is cooking with vegetables, but he did grow up on a dairy farm in Belgooly and admits he is also looking forward to the slow-cooked roasts and hearty stews of winter.

“The wines will get warmer and heavier too moving in to the winter,” says Sarah-Jane.

Sarah-Jane and Mark plan on opening for lunch mid-week during the winter months. “I’d love to offer a set low cost Menu del Dia (Menu of the Day such as you’d find in Spain,” says Mark. The Menu del Dia normally includes a soup or salad, main course with a side dish and dessert – it’s the most economical way to eat in Spain.

“Whether you come in for a nibble or a feast, we don’t mind, so long as there are people around us enjoying the food.”

Pilgrim’s is open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner (6-10pm) and for Sunday Lunch (1-4pm). With a capacity for just 34 in one sitting, booking is advisable. 023 8831796. www.pilgrims.ie.

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