In 2003, a bypass finally and forever diverted the bulk of traffic between Dublin and Cork from the infamous bottleneck that was Watergrass-hill.
Ever since, the village, just 15 minutes drive north of Cork City, is, for most travellers, little more than an evocative signpost fleetingly glimpsed from the motorway (in Irish, Cnocán na Biolraí, meaning ‘hill of the watercress’, or, in English, the nominative haiku, ‘water, ‘grass’, ‘hill’).
Away from the limelight, Watergrasshill might well have withered entirely, another victim of rural decline, but during the subsequent years of the Celtic Tiger, young home buyers were lured out to several newly built estates. It has since become something of a dormitory town and new residents are beginning to plant proper roots. Social links to the city remain strong, though, a ‘night on the town’ still invariably entails travelling into the city.
O’Mahony’s, a putative gastropub on the village’s Main St, may help change this particular habit.
Technically, it’s a reopening as proprietor Máire O’Mahony is the fourth generation of her family to operate the pub (and former butcher’s), having returned with young family and partner/co-proprietor Victor Murphy. Murphy has the hospitality pedigree to make it work, his last venture being the very excellent House Cafe at Cork Opera House and he brings a continuing commitment to using the very best of local, seasonal Irish produce in the kitchen.
O’Mahony, an artist, has overseen the renovation, gutting 80s-style interiors to create a compelling open-plan space filled with natural light. Those walls, not stripped back to bare brick, are painted in neutral matte colours; one wall is a blackboard, sheep hides hang from steel girders retrieved from the former abattoir behind the building.
(The courtyard and its outbuildings have already begun to develop their own reputation as a live venue and quirkily romantic alternative wedding venue.)
A selection of O’Mahony’s own artworks complete a welcoming space, a delightful transition from the prosaic quietude of the main street. Saturday night, the place is hopping and we fetch up alongside a couple of the aforementioned Celtic Tiger ‘blow-ins’ who soon profess their delight at this new local addition.
We opt for a selection of small plates (€12 a pop), the better to range across the menu. Ballycotton ray wing is gorgeously caramelised fish resting in a tart, unctuous Longueville cider cream, while Current Wife’s Kilbrack celeriac is a tasty puree served with whole ransoms — bulb and leaf — sweet-pickled Ballyhoura mushrooms, and the funky umami of cured egg yolk.
CW then has Kilbrack cauliflower, roasted florets doused in a dressing of capers, raisins, pecans, and hazelnuts, while I have Fitzgerald’s lamb rack and fritter of pressed lamb shoulder, served with peas, charred onion, and salsa verde. Home-cut chips are terrific; crisp exterior, hot fluffy interior with a sauce béarnaise so piquantly poised we have to order a second portion. This is all solid cooking, very tasty fare. While David Devereaux could sometimes benefit from finessing certain elements in delivery, he is a thoughtful, original chef and the recent award of RAI best gastropub in Munster is deserved.
Even as my sweet tooth recedes with age, it never quite loses its innate inclinations, and, as usual, I choose the better dessert. CW’s vanilla panna cotta is a pleasing, creamy affair cushioning rhubarb’s sharpness and wincingly sweet Shanakiel House honeycomb, while my treacle tart with Yum Gelato vanilla ice cream features crisp biscuity pastry with a toffee-ish filling that transports me back to childhood.
The drinks offering maintains the in-house ethos with a good selection of local craft beers and spirits and an especially considered list of non-alcoholic offerings. The wine list is decidedly anaemic in comparison, though our Friuli (San Simone Refosco) is a pleasant quaffer. This calibre of food deserves better companionship and more variety; news of a revitalised list in the offing is most welcome.
Those hellish pre-motorway traffic jams may be long gone from Watergrasshill but if O’Mahony’s continues in this fine fashion, it should be creating a few tailbacks of its own as a ‘night on the town’ becomes a truly local affair once more.
The bill: €90 (excluding tip)
Opening hours: Friday to Sunday, 5pm–12pm (food served, 6pm–9pm)
O’Mahony’s, Main St, Watergrasshill, Co Cork.
Tel 086 831 6879