It’s unlikely to be spotted by casual visitors to Clane town, but this hidden gem is well worth seeking out – and, once discovered, the convenience of its off-street location adjacent to a carpark makes it all the handier for the frequent re-visits which are sure to follow.
Since opening in 2003, owner Mark Condron, head chef Alan O’Regan and their talented young team have built up a loyal local following at this appealing restaurant – and their reputation for excellence has also made it a hot destination for discerning diners in the wider area, including those visiting the county’s outstanding attractions: wonderful gardens, Castletown House, motor racing at Mondello, horse racing (Naas, Punchestown), golf (K Club, among many) and the Straffan Steam Museum are all nearby.
Behind a smartly understated modern frontage, it’s a long room with an open kitchen along the back wall adding interest, together with blackboards highlighting special wines on offer and a selection by the glass.
The simple sophistication of the décor lends itself well to the demands of a restaurant that has to re-invent itself several times a day, as it’s open for long hours, seven days a week, beginning with an interesting breakfast which – like all of their menus – is available to take away at a 10% discount.
Comfortable ladder-back chairs look well against classy soft green paintwork and uncluttered darkwood tables are only laid with the bare essentials - but, tellingly, those include a salt and pepper mill.
Purple velvet drapes, dimmed downlighters, table lamps and tealights soften the atmosphere in the evening, creating a pleasing smart-casual ambience for enjoying some very good food.
The secret of Zest’s success is offering consistent quality and great value over a great range of options – a very customer-friendly policy, which is most noticeable at dinner, when inexpensive yet interesting pasta and gourmet pizza options (€10-15) are offered alongside an excellent à la carte choice of modern classics; these - perhaps nine choices on each course - veer towards the fine dining end of the cooking spectrum, all at very affordable prices.
Evening starters on an autumn menu (around €6.50-11.50), for example, might begin with grilled black pudding poached egg, garlic croute & béarnaise sauce (€7.50) a gorgeous variation on a classic favourite; other choices may include fried calamari lemon pepper, pickled white radish, gremolata dressing (€7) or a butternut squash & pear salad
with candied pecans, feta & chicory ( €7.50).
Main courses are also keenly priced (about €13-22.50), and might sometimes include unusual options such as rabbit (cooked as a joint, on the bone, which is so much nicer than the more usual boned and stuffed version) alongside favourites like Irish ribeye steak (with onion jam, chunky chips and béarnaise sauce) and fish & chips, or catch of the day – which might be trusty salmon, or a more unusual fish like blossom or gurnard.
This all makes for a very affordable (and potentially special occasion) meal, especially when accompanied by a well priced drinks list (including some Irish craft beers and ciders) and rounded off with more-ish desserts such as classic lemon tart with clotted cream (a house special), or a sumptuous chocolate espresso cake with pistachio ice cream.
Lunch menus include a good few of the evening dishes, plus a range of salads, sandwiches and wraps.
A very good website includes a list of suppliers, some recipes and interesting features on food and health, and local events etc.
* There's a sister restaurant, Jolly Café and Restaurant in Naas, Co Kildare.