I HAVE long wrestled with the conundrum that is Cobh, namely, why isn’t it one of the most feted of all Irish towns, for it is a multi-faceted jewel: elegant Victorian architecture in serried South-facing ranks runs down a steep hill to the waterfront, the towering gothic confection that is Cobh Cathedral casting an ecclesiastical eye over town and out to the magnificent harbour.
In my teens, I would take the train down from Cork to pass wild, hilarious nights in any of several terrific pubs, bunking in a friend’s family home, one of those stately old piles overlooking the harbour, that I always dreamt of owning. On one such night, I met a self-declared surrealist, who believed his mindset essential to navigating the miasma of ‘otherness’ often found in garrison towns of yore, Cobh included.
Much has changed, not least its new-found popularity as a cruise liner destination, passengers charmed by postcard prettiness and the astonishing, compelling history emanating from every corner, not least its role in the Titanic and Lusitania stories.
However, from my own more polarised professional perspective, it always lacked a good, innovative restaurant, so, when a local epicurean informs me of a newly-opened spot to ‘finally be proud of’, I am saddling my horse before I even have the address.
Ballymaloe-trained Jacqui O’Dea’s Seasalt is an attractive, relaxed room, high ceilings, exposed brick walls and a big bright window looking out to the promenade and apparently is already struggling to cope with local acclaim, a queue before us on arrival.
Carrot & lentil soup, served with home-made brown bread, is thick wholesome broth with intriguing spicy undercurrents — La Daughter and No 2 Son both indulge before she moves onto a sound cheese toastie with caramelised onions and hummus on the side.
The ‘toastie’ remains my most favourite of all comfort foods and No 2 Son has proven an equally zealous proselytiser but his first ever Croque Madame arrives anointed with Bechamel and topped with a fried egg, seemingly a step too far. Toastie? You can’t even see ‘toast’ for sauce, he wails.
A single mouthful is all he requires to be sold on the concept and he devours the lot, slow roasted West Cork ham and tangy Dubliner cheddar adding a sumptuous Irish accent to this Parisian cafe classic.
Current wife and a niece opt for fish tacos: crisp battered goujons of hake flecked with nigella seeds; Mexican slaw — red cabbage, pickled red onion, coriander —adds crunch and texture; avocado cream and smokey chipotle mayo furnish emollience necessary to bind the lot within rustic, flavoursome corn tortillas.
Roast tomato & Macroom Mozzarella tart is pastry topped with carmelised roast vegetables and creamy cheese, served with locally-foraged nettle pesto and crisp fresh salad leaves, a very tasty dish for sharing that doesn’t even make it all the way around the table.
A Hederman Smokehouse Platter is a cracking ensemble built around Frank Hederman’s hot smoked salmon and mackerel pate, from nearby Belvelly Smokehouse.
Served with a semi-soft boiled egg, sauerkraut, pickled cucumber and more of those excellent salad leaves along with grilled sourdough, brown bread and a herbed butter, it offers myriad taste combinations, only crying out for a crisp, white Burgundy to complete a lunch dish I’d happily stretch out ’til sundown. (Apparently, it is the first time Hederman’s globally-renowned produce has ever graced a menu in the town — if true, it speaks volumes of a local hospitality sector still playing catch-up.)
We conclude with coffees and truly excellent confections baked in-house by gifted baker Ali Cullinane, my favourite, a sublime, velvety, raspberry-vanilla cheese cake.
Other than a few speed wobbles with service — resolved swiftly, and with grace — it is a most pleasurable meal in a very welcoming space.
For all her successful and innovative experimentation with Asian-style spicing, O’Dea remains a solid cook, not a showy one, allowing fine local, seasonal produce to do the heavy lifting, and while the menu’s brunch/lunch dishes and template may be a familiar one elsewhere in the country, it remains novel around these parts, but I have a feeling Seasalt’s success could trigger a groundswell of local culinary change — surely then Cobh will assume its rightful place at the very top table.
€92 (excluding tips, including freshly squeezed juices and coffees)
Monday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm
Seasalt Cafe & Deli, 17 Casement Square, Kilgarvan, Cobh, Co Cork.
Tel: 021-4813383; www.facebook.com/SeasaltCobh