The thing about good cooks is that they are always on the path to becoming better cooks. Look at Ross Lewis, of Dublin’s Chapter One. Or David Hurley, of Gregans Castle. Or John Wyer of Forest Avenue. Each time you eat their food, you can see the lessons learnt, the progressions made.
Mark Jennings, of Pilgrim’s restaurant in Roscarbery, West Cork, is one of those guys. When he opened up shop in the square in Roscarbery, two and a bit years ago, Mr Jennings was a good cook. He had the chops. He impressed you straight away.
The menu might have confused you a bit – it reads as follows: Nibbles; Small; Large; Ices; Puddings; Cheese – but once you had your head around that, it was the food that Mr Jennings magicked onto the plate that counted. He cooked lovely things. He understood his food. And he had a great room, which Sarah Jane Pearce ran superbly.
But, Mr Jennings is one of those good cooks who is on that path to becoming a better cook, and today his food is sweeter and smarter than ever. He has more confidence. In fact, he is nerveless: one of his starters is “Dressed lettuce.” That’s it, and it’s sublime, the most beautiful leaves, the most beautiful edible flowers, a perfect salad dressing. Pretty, and perfect.
He shows that level of confidence and control in every dish, but some things stood out in particular: a perfect piece of roasted hake with nettle and spelt risotto and Lisheen asparagus is benchmark. Wagyu beef ssam with Bib lettuce and kimchi is heartbreaking, simply because you have to share it with the rest of the table. Nettle and tonic sorbet with Bertha’s Revenge gin and candied lime is like a whole new way to drink gin and have dessert: this is what they mean by having your cake and eating it.
Best of all, Mr Jennings’ food has that maverick quality that you only find amongst West Cork cooks in West Cork restaurants. He is unconventional, attuned to the time of year – lots of nettles; poached rhubarb; periwinkles; gorse custard foam; wild garlic mayo; the first early potatoes – and every plate hits its target, the work of a good cook finding his way to being a better cook. Pilgrims is just mighty.