Roughly a decade ago, the pretty village of Ballydehob, in West Cork, featured in a national broadsheet article as a poster child for the rural decline, further accelerated by the then-raging recessionary storm.
Ten years on, rural decline is a live issue, State policy consisting of little beyond faux-concerned hand-wringing and fatalistic resigned shrugging of shoulders, yet Ballydehob is now the Comeback Kid, in the full flush of a revival that puts Lazarus forever in the hapenny place, and it is very much driven by the hospitality sector.
Casual dining Budd’s does a splendid job in the space formerly occupied by the late, lamented Annie’s and fisherman Sean O’Driscoll’s fish-and-chip truck does a gorgeous fish supper but a Michelin star for Rob Krawczyk’s Restaurant Chestnut within six months of opening was a jolt to the system right out of left field, turning the village into a dining destination of international appeal.
The revival of another local institution, Levi’s Corner House Bar, under the aegis of fourth-generation family member Joe O’Leary and partner Caroline O’Donnell, has been equally important, the innovative duo turning this tiny little pub/ shop into a nationally renowned, award-winning live music venue and, according to my own deeply scientific methods of quantitative analysis, quite probably the greatest pub in the universe.
“Quite probably’? Let’s now make that ‘most definitely’, because for August Belfast’s internationally-acclaimed Bia Rebel Ramen has set up its food truck to the rear of the pub, beer garden serving as an al-fresco dining space. The impact has been immediate: on opening night, everything sold out within 90 minutes; the following night just as a full-blown summer lightning storm is kicking off with biblical deluge, an only-partially sheltered beer garden is already jammed with prospective diners.
Ramen is a Japanese dish of Chinese-style wheat noodles, served with broth and a combination of meat, fish or vegetables. It is very much a dish du jour on these shores. While chef Brian Donnelly, BRR proprietor with partner Jenny Holland, has had a stellar career as a chef, beginning at Ballymaloe House, stints with Gordon Ramsey and Michel Roux Jr along the way, and serving as head chef in Thornton’s, in Dublin, back when it held two Michelin stars, it is his more elemental BRR offering that has attracted attention the length and breadth of the island and further afield.
A party of five, we order all four dishes from the tight little menu, doubling up on some orders. Grilled hake is a fine fillet of fish atop a bed of rice, served with charred baby gem and warm-pickled cucumber and while Donnelly makes no bones about amping up flavours for an Irish audience, this retains an elegant Japanese-style asceticism, a variety of seaweeds, including dillisk and sea lettuce doing the heavy lifting.
It is not the first time Karaage, a Japanese cousin of the chicken goujon, has been served in West Cork with chef Mark Jennings turning out a lovely version in Pilgrim’s, in Rosscarbery, but Donnelly’s effort is exceptional: 24-hour marinated chicken, lush, juicy and tender, is coated in crisp potato starch batter for what Donnelly rightfully describes as the perfect pub snack.
And then there is the ramen. Miso vegan ramen is a bowl of sweet, savoury broth and noodles topped with chilli, tofu, aubergine and sea spaghetti, the class of hearty, healing dish that could raise the dead, truly gorgeous, yet La Daughter and I are even more besotted with the Irish Ramen. Fine West Cork beef, braised for hours, braising liquor then used to make the broth and, save the noodles, the only other additions are fresh parsley and raw beech mushrooms.
The noodles themselves, freshly handmade by Donnelly, are the finest I’ve ever tasted, nutty, perfectly al dente, and it is another stunner of a dish, true Irish-Asian fusion.
The coming weeks include plans for a chicken yakitori night and another devoted to superb local lobster, so, to save on an infinitely longer hike up to Belfast, pack bib and tucker and set that compass westwards for Ballydehob, back with a bang and now pretty much close to the the centre of the Irish culinary universe.
6pm until food runs out
Bia Rebel Ramen @ Levi’s Corner House
Main St, Ballydehob, Co Cork