Cork: Exotic, exquisite

Orso Kitchen & Bar, Pembroke St, Cork; tel: 021-2438000; www.orso.ie

They have near made a virtue of the restricted space in Orso. With Moorish-style tiling and soft twinkling lights, it is akin to stumbling on a narrow little old-town bar in southern Spain. Picture: Denis Minihane

WERE an estate agent to set about flogging the merits of the premises that house Orso, you can be sure b, i, j, ó and u would be plucked out of the Scrabble bag once again. The same little site has seen several food ventures stumble fatally in the past but this one comes with the Market Lane imprimatur, a mightily efficient restaurant machine operating successfully around the corner ón Oliver Plunkett St and in the Castle Cafe in Blackrock Castle, not at all inclined to dally with failure. But while those two focus on a cuisine more familiar to native Irish punters, Orso has plumped for immersion in the more exotic realms of ‘Middle Eastern’ cookery, enjoying something of a revival at the moment. It is difficult to pin down precisely what that is but it does include a shared palette of hot climate, spices and lots of yoghurt. Orso give themselves further wiggle room by adding in southern Mediteranean influences as well.

They have near made a virtue of the restricted space. With Moorish-style tiling and soft twinkling lights, it is akin to stumbling on a narrow little old-town bar in southern Spain. On an early week night, a ‘school night’, DB and I are giddy with excitement at getting out, even if we anticipate dining with the tumbleweed but, amazingly, the place is full all evening, many being turned away and the two floor staff (no room for more!) handle all with charming efficiency.

As Greek and Turkish food is usually shoehorned into the ‘Middle Eastern’ category, it feels appropriate to order an array of dishes, mezze-style, and after the very obliging maitre d’ allows a little sampling, a perky Rioja Predilecto 2010 seems best suited to the ‘Spice Route’ ahead. M’hammar Spicy Prawns with Organic Leaves and Cucumber Dip features a very generous eight prawns; at such a low price, it almost definitely signifies imports, but they’re nicely cooked, sauteed Moroccan-style, an earthy cumin grounding the chilli zing. Vegetable Fritters with a Chilli and Coriander Dipping Sauce will never be the stuff of epicurean epiphanies but are wolfed down.

A friend has assured me the Tender Boneless Lamb Rib in a Sesame Crust with Homemade Salsa Verde is the absolute bee’s patellae and a must-order, so I’m underwhelmed by a rather dried-out, dense coating of crust. Still, never underestimate the staying power of a man and a piece of meat and I battle through to sweet, tender lamb, leaving nothing behind. (Later, I spy the same order but with a moister, crumblier, more appealing crust arriving at another table and it is obvious I’ve been unlucky enough to receive a misfire.

Initially, it appears a too-flathúileach hand with the Bombay Spices has overwhelmed the subtleties of the succulent Roast Monkfish but the buttery, unassuming Courgette Spaghetti is a perfect counterpoint, soaking up any evidence of excess. A good dish.

My Half Spiced Quail, with Roast Saffron Veg and Dipping Sauce arrives after I’ve done fair damage. I groan. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to committing a spot of eating but I’d be more than happy with this portion size as a full meal. Neither does it help matters that the quail is juicy and tender meat, the skin spicy, crisp, and carmelised, all crying out to be devoured.

Ordering two desserts, Lemon Tart with Greek Yoghurt, Honey and Pine Nuts and Giant Rosewater and Pistachio Meringues with fruit and cream, is either praiseworthy professionalism or the height of gluttony. Professionalism records them as very pleasant confections, the meringues very much to DB’s taste, but gluttony surrenders and they are bagged for the babysitter.

If the final tally below (including drinks and coffee) raises a few eyebrows, rest assured, Orso is terrific value: the very generous portions means we had ordered more than twice as much as we could eat. The culinary influences may remain pleasantly vague but Orso do a decent job of imposing some coherency on the whole thing. A delightful spot.

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