“You won’t have a bad meal here, boy” says the taxi driver, winding the car between Cork’s city streets to our dinner date.
This humble response (followed by ‘boy’ when neither myself or my thirty-three year old companion would quite qualify) is typical Cork, but as much as this Dubliner smirks at the superiority complex of the second city, there’s no denying he’s right.
status as a foodie destination is world-renowned, with Travel+Leisure just recently devoting an article to eating their way through the county. The quality of the local produce; cheese, meat, vegetables; that top chefs draw on for utterly memorable meals in restaurants with rocketing reputations means that indeed, you can’t get a bad meal in Cork. Boy.
It’s a delicious lesson I plan to stuff into a weekend. We start Saturday morning, with a class of occasion dining with breakfast in five-star . Men are in ties, women are in pearls. is just as exceptionally dressed.
I can see so many of my reflections in the gleaming cutlery and sparkling chandeliers I’m almost light-headed. But then that could be the smell of omelettes and full Irish breakfast wafting off the plates gliding by on top of pristine white towels. In the next room, an Aladdin’s Cave of scones, bread, cheeses, meats, smoked salmon and juices has me paralysed with choice, tong in hand. Reader, I ate almost everything.
Strolling into town, I came across another sight I have to admit I haven’t witnessed in . Saturday brunch time, outside several cafés and eateries, people were queuing. Calmly waiting outside in the sunshine, leaning against the wall, waiting for a table. Ok, I‘m ready to take Cork’s foodie phenomenon seriously.
Ask any Cork chef the secret for their culinary wizardry, and you’ll get a smug hand gesture to the west to the source of their power: local ingredients. West Cork is their sprawling, sea-swept backyard, nourishing fields of free-ranging, well-fed meat, poultry, and dairy herds – the farmhouse, artisan cheeses seduce palates the world over. And that’s before you even get to the shore. Spindly peninsulas jut out into the Atlantic and tickling shrimp, oysters, scallops, crabs, and langoustines out of the water. The boats meanwhile, drag in cod, sole, pike, plaice, haddock, and monkfish.
All these ingredients meet in the elegantly vaulted city-centre structure of the , in a colourful, smelly, noisy, shouty riot to the senses. Eat me! scream the hunks of West Cork cheeses including the wafty oak of Smoked Gubbeen. Try me! whispers the Cork Boi Sausage – a medley of local pork, beef, Murphy’s Stout, onions and thyme. Why me! wonders the sad dead eyes of the seabass pulled from the port of Ballycotton that morning – sorry, that’s the vegetarian in me talking.
See my tasty tour of Cork City has so far been just appetisers to my true foodie mission and the destination of this taxi ride – to dine in the best vegetarian restaurant in Ireland; Café Paradiso. Chef/owner/author Denis Cotter whips overlooked simple ingredients together with inspired flair of a children’s book chocolate factory. Typical pairings include introducing aubergine to sheep’s cheese and almonds, with a chilli pesto kick. Things get uncharacteristically saucy between turnip and mushrooms when he gets pecans and red wine gravy involved. While a delicate re-imagining of the humble potato mash via an asparagus, lentils and citrus recipe he actually shared with this blog. So you can imagine the butterflies in my tummy as I took a seat at his airy, modern eatery and peeked into the open kitchen.
My butterflies were soothed by a starter of velvety smooth potato gnocchi, sliding down my throat on an entourage of garlic butter and spinach. The risotto dotted with peas, broad beans and onion and oozing mature goat’s cheese was such ultimate comfort food I felt I’d discovered the culinary equivalent of a bear hug. One dessert and two spoons was the plan, as I declared to be so full I’d barely handle another mouthful. Until the chocolate pecan brownie with banana ice cream actually arrived. Reader, I almost licked the plate.
Down the road at the Cornstore cocktail bar I had my last lesson in Cork flavours. These mixologists have won awards for their liquid creations, and I’d like to bestow my own for the best – and first – dessert cocktail I’ve ever tasted.
With the glistening glass of vodka, crème de cacao and crumbled chocolate flake, I made a toast: to Cork, where you can’t get a bad meal or a sweeter deal. Boy.