It might be a bit rich reviewing an establishment that readers won’t be able to visit until next June, but rather consider it a special consideration to give you plenty of time to plan an essential pilgrimage to Milesian, a very special restaurant in the wilds of West Kerry.
Plus, to be downright pragmatic, Milesian chef-owner Frankie Fitzgerald needs the public’s oxygen to even keep the flame burning as he puts the restaurant in mothballs for eight months through the winter as it has done so every season since it opened in 2016, even surviving through two years of Covid lockdowns.
Castlegregory is a charming village on the north side of the beautiful Dingle Peninsula, a classic old-school summer resort, which comes to life every June as families settle into mobile homes and holiday homes.
Many of them have been doing it for generations and it makes for a captive audience, especially in July and August, but by September a truncated season is almost over, completely running out by the end of the month.
Additionally, although Fitzgerald enjoys huge local support and its wonderfully cooked menus of excellent quality local seasonal dishes are excellent value for money (two courses, €35; three courses, €40) , the location is far, very far from the traffic volume of an urban location that could run such a business all year round; and the remoteness of the peninsula is extremely challenging for traveling guests.
Even reduced opening hours in winter are out of the question: the traditional 200-year-old Irish cottage that houses Milesian is utterly charming, rustic, welcoming, pleasantly scruffy interior, entirely authentic, not remote; but it is also a contrary kind and left unused even for three or four days, the heat escapes quickly from the building, especially in winter. Nowadays, no sinner in the hotel industry can afford to heat an empty room.
So Fitzgerald and the teams of young talent he assembles each year close up shop and leave for the winter, working in high-end restaurants in Ireland and abroad. The following June, he does it again, effectively launching a brand new restaurant every year.
I first met Fitzgerald working in the kitchen of the late Idá’s in Dingle and he still added to his fine experience in other excellent restaurants, but it’s only been so long since this annual shake-up can be sustained .
The Castlegregory native is now reaching a stage in his career where he needs to know once and for all if he can turn the family restaurant into a full-time project, putting time on his annual culinary migration.
Tonight’s menu is a tasting of Milesian’s greatest hits of 2022, with natural food and wine pairings. First, three snacks. The cod brandade, textured rather than the usual mash, a hearty comforting, gobbled up, while the corn shredded Skeaghanore duck taco is tangy with jalapeno punch, but my favorite is the lobster on singular potato pancakes and extraordinary. All three pair perfectly with Mark Jenkins’ Cockagee Irish Perry.
Next comes a pretty illustrated plate: dried trout, wrapped in roasted nori, a superb fish perfectly balanced on the textural sweet point between the delicious and the tender, finished with a pointillist vision of the points: a verdant wakame emulsion with notes crisp aniseed of dill and fennel, and smoky cultured charcoal cream. A broth of kombu and bonito, drizzled with marine umami, completes the dish.
Fitzgerald amps up the flavors of Kerry Lamb in wontons, al dente parcels with grilled shiitake, applying tangy smoked lamb fat, its powerful notes bordering on suet. Bone and seaweed broth, salty marsh glasswort crunch and herbaceous parsley oil round out the spectrum of flavors.
A fillet of cod is briefly dried and pan-fried in a dashi butter emulsion, resulting in shimmering pearly flesh with a crown of golden amber. It is served with tender braised fennel in a sweet and very delicious corn velouté with mussels and chanterelles, the local corn providing surprising weight in the mid-range, melting another excellent dish. Star of this evening’s sublime pairings, a Muscadet (Nicolas Reau, La Pentière, Loire 2020), crunchy white fruits and mineral salinity, is a perfect foil for the ambient sweetness.
The centerpiece is more Skeaghanore duck; Hand on heart, I’ve never had such a well-cooked duck breast. Fat melted in the pan, the brisket is pan-fried, rested, then finished on charcoal. The meat is incredibly tender, pulsating with full and balanced flavors. It is served with a silky purée of artichokes and grilled leeks topped with 15 Fields cheddar custard, crispy shallots and elderberry jus. It may look like a gouty gutbuster, but it’s actually surprisingly crisp, not “heavy” at all, a pleasure to eat. Either way, the juicy, fresh fruit of an eye-catching Zweigelt (Judith Beck, Ink, 2021) perfectly recalibrates the palate between every bite. Steamed potatoes topped with truffle mayonnaise and Cáis na Tíre cheese is a ridiculously delicious excess that devastates any lingering food resolution.
Wild blackberries, poached apple, rose hips and vanilla mascarpone are one of the best desserts I have enjoyed this year. Earlier in the evening, we picked beautifully ripe blackberries from windswept coastal hedgerows, tasting a pronounced salinity of wind-borne sea salt.
It’s still evident in tonight’s proud firm bramble fruit, cooked briefly in wine syrup, with mashed rose hips. Crispy, poached Granny Smith apples are a tangy counterpoint to excess saccharine and barely sweet vanilla mascarpone cushions, all wrapped up in velvety lactic opulence.
And that’s it, Frankie’s superb young team, including Sous Chef Gareth O’Brien and Eve Molloy upstairs, begin packing their bags, cleaning out the caravan summer homes and migrating for the winter.
And that leads to my own personal and entirely selfish reason for writing this review now rather than next year.
Milesian is already an excellent Irish restaurant that I very much hope to return to next year; consider this review a down payment on my insurance policy to ensure the survival of what is currently a hidden local gem, but deserves to be celebrated as a true national treasure.