Phew, that was a long time to wait for a table! Almost four months and another lifetime ago, I’d arranged to meet an old comrade, a South Mall lifer, for lunch around the corner in Nash 19. We’d catch up and I’d also get to knock out a long overdue review of a venerable Cork culinary institution.
That was back before the world ceased turning and time stood still or at least did no more than re-run the same 24 hours over and over like Groundhog Day with a fada. Back then, a whole month might pass in a single hyper-frenetic day and what seemed a relatively reasonable proposition days before gradually began to seem foolhardy.
What’s more, my colleague Leslie Williams and I had been discussing with our editor for some weeks whether this august organ should even be reviewing in such fraught times, when even a rave might be forever tainted with the miasma of dread and anxiety that hung over the hospitality sector and the country at large.
We postponed lunch, three days later, Ireland went into lockdown.
Fast forward nearly four months and it seemed half the country was banging on restaurant doors, gagging for the great June 29 re-opening, craving a return to ‘normal’, whatever ‘normal’ means in the wake of such a cataclysmic global event. It certainly wasn’t going to be business as usual for restaurants.
The seismic fiscal shock of forced closure was then followed by further pre-opening costs incurred implementing HSE guidelines on social distancing and retraining of staff. Despite initial public enthusiasm and support in recent days, many, including older diners usually so supportive of the sector have yet to return. And what happens if we face a second wave of Covid 19? It was, and remains, akin to starting an entirely new business.
The Irish Examiner took the decision to delay reviews, affording establishments a chance to find their feet and, for the moment, Leslie and I will be avoiding the scoring system and leaving (always well-intentioned and hopefully constructive) criticism for the future. For now, we intend act as guides to the changed face of Irish dining, always illuminating the many reasons to celebrate our world class hospitality sector.
On Leeside, the Big Bang of re-opening was best encapsulated in a temporarily pedestrianised Prince’s Street lined with tables and chairs outside its restaurants and bars, al fresco seating as some compensation for interior space lost to social distancing guidelines.
Naturally, it is a permanent hostage to the whims of Irish summer weather but even on this half-decent day it is humming before midday, a queue forming for ‘Nash 19’ tables. It is no trouble, especially when I acquire a serendipitous dining partner, ‘Agatha Christie’, an old comrade of long standing, perfectly happy to become my new plus one.
Claire Nash’s eponymous daytime restaurant/deli shop/gallery has long held a deserved reputation for wedding finest local seasonal produce to the elemental ethos of the late Myrtle Allen, cooking excellent ingredients simply yet well. While scone and cuppa or light lunch suffices for many, order dinner in the middle of the day with a nice bottle or two on the side, and you can wind up passing an afternoon to give any night on the tiles a run for its money in terms of good food and all round conviviality.
Today, I am here for occasion as much as grub and am happy to brunch on crunchy grilled sourdough toast sandwiching crispy bacon and nicely fried eggs, house relish on the side. It is utterly perfect in its elemental simplicity, a comforting and surprisingly emotional return to dining out.
Agatha opts for a big, bawdy sausage roll, succulent spicy pork in buttery pastry; her fluffy, light scone is equally more-ish. A nicely bitter espresso with hot milk and I head off to ‘take the temperature’ of the city for a few hours, including a heartwarming return to the English Market.
Later, I happen upon #51, on the Coal Quay, deeply unfortunate to open just five weeks before lockdown, but delightful and perfectly battered courgette flowers with curried housemade mayo, and excellent cold brewed coffee, also enjoyed al fresco, suggest a bright future for Annie Zagar and Dave Devereaux’s new restaurant, and I’ll be returning for a deeper dive.
It’s good to be back!