Restaurant Review: The Ivory Tower, Cork

With each passing year, The Ivory Tower looks less like a restaurant in 21st century Ireland, more like The Old Curiosity Shop as directed by Werner Herzog, writes Joe McNamee.

The stairs up from the street carry a faint whiff of feline, on the first floor landing is an old piano, cluttered with paraphernalia: jugs, vases, feathers, animal horns; a selection of striped silk ties hang from the back of what may be a stool. An oil-painted biblical scene (The Tower of Babel?) hangs on the wall. On one side of a narrow passage into the restaurant are random hats; on the other, a picture window peering into the miniscule galley kitchen.

The softly-lit dining room is intimate, a bay window overlooks Oliver Plunkett St. A crystal chandelier dangles from the high ceiling, original old cornicing still intact. Walls have gradually surrendered to a clatter of works by local artists alongside old photos, knick-knacks and other gewgaws. Two dressers, one country kitchen pine, the other, drawing-room dark wood with mirrors, house glassware, and the antique china tableware on which food is served.

My dining companion, Old Comrade (OC), is similarly besotted with the nosebag, so we ‘share’ the seven-course Fusion Flavours tasting menu (€50) and a three-course dinner (€35). It begins with ‘Chorizo’ of Bluefin Tuna, a ‘sausage’ of raw fish tartare, creamy flesh flecked with chilli, infused with stringent, garlicky tang.

Duck heart, carrot and orange soup is deeply healing, sweet puree of carrot, citric orange rendering the earthbound celestial. Chewy duck heart, freighted with umami, rests atop.

Meanwhile, OC has Squid, Mussel Arancini, Saffron Cream. Tentacles dangle down over a black mound, a ‘sea creature’ resting on a ‘rock’. The ‘rock’ is actually a sublimely comforting, briny ‘black pudding’ of risotto nero, spaghetti nero, squid ink and mussels. My tender pigeon breast reveals a plush purple heart, an austere metallic mouthful of blood and iron, softened by the natural sugars of Jerusalem artichoke and quince.

OC has spent a lifetime behind gun and rod, downing many a pheasant in his time. He pauses for a moment to contemplate his plate of pheasant teppinyaki, pineapple kimchi and tom yum cream. “Do you know?” he says, eyes glistening. “That is the nicest pheasant I have ever eaten.” The high, gamey funk is tempered by prolonged miso marinade, yet the meat retains pull and texture. I can only agree.

Squid, aubergine, truffle sacchetini, features chewy little rings of squid and pulpy, sweet aubergine but the truffle oil in the pasta parcel stands out as an ill-judged imposter on a night of superbly-realised flavours.

A guacamole ‘ice cream’ is a palate cleanser with notions, setting the tone for Mexican-influenced venison; tender, rich meat luxuriating in smoky, chilli notes of a chocolate and chipotle sauce.

Duck heart, pigeon, pheasant, venison? If this feast is coming across all Henry Tudor, that the only thing in our stockings this Christmas will be a crippling case of gout, then it is to underestimate O’Connell’s consummate abilities. The recession triggered a nostalgic return to game on menus throughout the country but too many chefs lack the experience to deliver it well; O’Connell cooks wild meat as if he were raised feral in the forest. A balanced St Emilion Grand Cru (Chateau La Commanderie 2005) of soft tannins and spicy black fruit only heightens the effect.

While OC justly relishes contrasting tastes and textures of nutty dense Hazelnut Madeleine, syrupy fig in ripasso, and the deep caramel of smoked molasses ice cream, my belly reckons I’m done until a delightfully whimsical white forest bavarois decides otherwise: light, creamy mousse with gentle hints of berries atop a soft sponge is sweet simplicity itself.

In an increasingly homogenised hospitality sector, where interior designer can seem as valued as chef, where menus are composed on spreadsheets from ingredients dictated by fashion, O’Connell is an outlier, his offering bristling with a spiky originality that grows more esoteric with each passing year.

He could have had the Michelin stars but that would have necessitated neutering his wildly creative instincts, yielding to the rigours of consistent repetition.

Sure, his experimentation occasionally backfires but he remains one of the best chefs in the country and tonight’s meal is some of the finest food I’ve eaten this year — but, then again, I usually say that in any year I dine in The Ivory Tower.

the Tab

The Tab: €135

How to: Thursday to Saturday, from 7pm ‘til late

The Verdict

  • Food: 9.5
  • Service: 8.5
  • Value: 9
  • Atmosphere: 8


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