I’VE long held a gr• for Fermoy, those fine tall buildings, expansive square and capacious bridge linking north of town to south. It bespeaks an earlier era and it only ever takes the briefest of visits (and a hot toddie in the Grand Hotel!) to have me dreaming of warm tweeds and a stout ghillie to spirit me away on pony and trap for some angling on the beautiful Blackwater.
Like many other rural Irish towns Fermoy is feeling the cruel bite of recession. The typical weekday diner is merely concerned with filling the belly for as little outlay as possible; hardly a conducive economic backdrop for a restaurant.
But proprietor Mounir Abbey, married to a local girl and firmly wedded to the area, has substantial industry experience and his opening gambit was a strong one: hiring award-winning, classically-trained French chef Fred Desormeaux, long since Hibernicised by his 15 years in Ireland.
The pub has been largely untouched. A set of racing prints on one wall harks back to a bygone era when a docket book was for bets rather than kitchen orders, but the long room is clean, bright and welcoming. The TV shimmers softly in the background for a few match-watching drinkers; this is not pastiche, it really is a pleasant, small-town pub.
Desormeaux may have trained in Paris but his heart appears rooted in provincial French cooking of further South: deceptively simple, substantial and very comforting. The menu is straightforward but this is no bog-standard carvery.
His superb chowder is already legendary around certain quarters of town, a smoky, peppery tomato bisque that could raise the dead. Pil-Pil Prawns in Chilli Sauce is surprisingly sweet, though imported Tiger prawns are a poor substitute for the native variety — no doubt, an economic consideration.
Children’s options include half portions of anything on the menu, but this pair both opt for the children’s special, breaded goujons of cod with French fries so delicious they almost start a war, both parents thieving like pathological magpies.
Portions are of a volume a polar bear puts away when he knows he’s on the verge of a long hard winter with no more to eat ‘til spring. At that, he’d struggle with my Lamb Shank with Sweet Potato and Scallion Mash with Sage and Red Wine Jus. Nowadays, ‘jus’ on a menu usually signifies a pointillist dotting of what was dubbed gravy a few years hence, but here a glistening pool of the stuff surrounds an island of delicious mash, a humungous lamb shank perched precariously atop.
The meat comes away in great sumptuous, silken gobbets, deeply flavoursome, melting in the mouth and this particular bear sets himself up not just for this winter but probably two or three after that as well. Barely able to acknowledge a side of sweet carrots in garlic butter, I roll to one side and commence hibernation.
The two cubs and mother, however, are up for dessert: chocolate brownies with ice cream and a crème brulee; unpretentious, well-executed and consumed with relentless vigour.
The wine list is tidy, pleasant drinkers all, and, like the main menu, exceptionally good value. Even more astoundingly, each adult meal ordered guarantees a free child’s meal as well. In a wealthier marketplace, that might smack of desperation but it is quite wonderful in this day and age to put away several courses, including coffees and wine, and pay the size of bill that pre-dated the arrival of progeny. Actually, make that singleton prices.
It takes steel for such a sublime culinary technician to dispense with ego and cook such simple fare, albeit very well, but a seasoned operator will always play to his primary market. Hopefully, things will pick up sooner rather than later and diners will have a bit more to spend. Then maybe the best food in Fermoy by a long shot will get even better again. Meanwhile, travel for some of the best value in the land.
THE TAB: €50 plus tip
HOW TO: Tues 10am-4pm/Wed & Thurs 12pm-8pm/Fri & Sat 12pm-9pm/Sun 12.30pm-8pm
Wine list: 6/10
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