Tucked away on the square in Rosscarbery village is a foodie’s paradise; Pilgrim’s celebrates everything that is good about food with the emphasis on serving a seasonally crafted ever-changing daily menu. Since it first opened four years ago, the restaurant has maintained and improved its ethical values and ethos of using mainly West Cork produce.
Owners Mark Jennings and Sarah-Jane Pearce started this buisness in 2015 on a shoestring budget with little or no familiarity with running a business. What they did have was a shared love of good food and a very clear vision for the type of restaurant they wanted to create. The result – an imaginative and flavoursome menu and inviting dining experience that has gained them a number of number of awards and well-deserved recognition on Catherine Cleary’s 100 Best Restaurants in the Irish Times; John and Sally McKennas’Guides 100 Best Restaurants; and the Business Post 101 Great Irish Restaurants.
But it’s not about the awards for this couple. “People thought we were mad for opening in a small village in West Cork,” says Sadie “but for us it’s all about enjoying what we do, running an ethically-minded business and achieving a good work-life balance. ”This is something that has become even more important to them both since they welcomed their baby boy Irah into the world last year. The family is now happily settled in Rosscarbery; they’re building a home and have just signed the lease on the restaurant building for another four years.
There have been small changes in the restaurant; however while the Ikea lampshades and plates may have been replaced with more upmarket light fittings and handmade bespoke plates and the wine list has grown, the welcome remains the same. Sarah-Jane and Christina are gracious and attentive front-of-house hosts; nothing is too much trouble and families with children are made to feel very welcome.
The menu at Pilgrim’s changes frequently, featuring whatever is in season – although the Tatsuta age (sweet chicken) is a constant much to Mark’s consternation. “I tried taking it off the menu but the customers made me put it back on,” he says laughing.
A keen forager, Mark thinks nothing of diviing for sea lettuce or spending two hours on his day off picking chanterelles. “We preserved enough wild garlic in the spring to last us through the year,” he says.
Pilgrim’s is renowned for introducing West Cork diners to slightly more ususual ingredients like Okihiji from Alex in Drimoleague, which is one of Japan’s oldest vegetables and a gourmet speciality. “it’s also known as land seaweed,” explains Mark. Or the Italian Agretti (Monk’s Beard), which looks like long thick grass. This is served with the main dish of cod and a warm cherry-tomato salsa caper. Speaking of which Mark goes through at least 25 kilos of tomatoes a week during the summer, mostly from Mike Walsh in Ballinascarthy. “So if you don’t like tomatoes you probably shouldn’t visit us in July and August,” he says laughing.
Mark and Sarah-Jane are Inspired by what’s around them and by what they discover on their travels. “The menu uses traditional culinary techniques of world cuisines to emphasise the quality local vegetables and ingredients from here” explains Mark. So you might find a green curry made with green nettles or Som Tam – a Thai papaya salad – made with Irish cabbages. One of the most popular raw food dishes has been the raw vegetable wraps that Mark made using his dehydrator with courgette, tomato and psyllium husks. Served with a green dip made with dill and coriander and a cashew sour cream, it was a big hit.
At the time of writing, the menu featured nibbles of Monkfish crudo, oyster mayo, cucumber, rose; Griddled padron peppers, romesco. Smalls included Cucumber vichysoisse, heirloom beetroot, confit egg yolk, walnut, watercress; and Warm lambs liver and kidney salad, kadhai aubergine, green bean, sesame chilli oil. Featured on the mains were Angus striploin, sauteed courgettes, cherry tomatoes, basil or for the vegetarian Summer squash flowers, spiced lentil, tomato cardamom broth, green bean, mint yoghurt, almond orange. After all that if you can manage dessert, the Salted caramel custard, black pepper chocolate cremeaux, whipped crème fraiche, hazlenut crumble looked tantalising.
Pilgrim’s serves at least one vegan every night, a challenge Mark welcomes, as his main passion is cooking with vegetables.”We’ve a lot more growers popping up in West Cork, smallscale market garden growers, learning as they go but with great enthusiasm,” says Mark, who himself boasts a lush polytunnel filled with garlic, herbs, sweetcorn, borlotti beans, grapes and even a white nectarine tree. Growing their own vegetables is something Mark and Sadie hope to do more of. “But I don’t think West Cork is quite ready for a vegetarian Pilgrims yet,” says Mark smiling.
There’s definitely no chance of that with a delivery of 80 lamb’s tongues arriving in to the restaurant. “We are using more offal in the restaurant,” says Mark. “We had a Dexter beef animal killed for us last month.” The Dexter animal from Ballylicky was part of a herd of 20 who were free to roam 220 acres of commonage with access to an oak forest and coastline eating food like seaweed, nettles, and mushrooms.
Whether meat-lover or vegan, in mind of a nibble or a feast – if you haven’t already had the pleasure, go experience the exquisite flavours of Pilgrim’s.
Bookings open on September 4 for CABÁISTE – a harvest bounty vegetarian dinner, as part of the A Taste of West Cork food festival, at Pilgrim’s on September 11. The six course vegetarian tasting menu, with natural wine pairing, will be expertly prepared by Paradiso Restaurant, Cork, Head Chef, Eneko Lopez, and Mark Jennings of Pilgrims.
Pilgrim’s will also be appearing on our television screens in a new series called Beyond the Menu airing on RTE 1 on September 9. Be sure to tune in, as you’ll get to see what it’s like behind the scenes at a busy restaurant.
Pilgrim’s is open Wednesday to Saturday 6-10pm, Sunday lunch 1-4pm. Book online (pilgrims.ie) or call 023 8831796.