Over the course of a decade, I’ve visited Sage more than most other restaurants. Conveniently located on my — slightly extended — doorstep, it has been fascinating to watch chef-proprietor Kevin Aherne’s culinary evolution, particularly as a 12-Mile Menu locavore zealot, when his kitchen’s larder was sourced almost entirely from within that self-imposed limit.
The stays of that very successfully realised culinary restriction (further tightened by pursuit of Michelin glory) were eventually loosened and Aherne’s cooking became less showy, relaxed, more concerned with flavour than accolade, and all the better for it, as he delivered probably the best food of his career.
He also began to develop as a restaurateur, regularly evolving the business model: adding the more casual Green Room, serving ‘snacks’ and craft beers; and developing the courtyard into a splendid outdoor space.
But then The Covid rode into town and tore up the hospitality rulebook for all and sundry. Aherne was fast to respond, reorienting to deliver a smart take-home offering, opening a deli shop and then branching into retail with a new range of Sage2Go ready meals and sundry products, now available in multiple outlets around the county.
Imposed lockdown may have initially hurt business but it taught Aherne the true value of balancing home life with work commitments and, while the dining public had come to expect regular change from Aherne, his next move was a real curveball.
In late October, last year, he announced he was hanging up his apron as head chef and entrusting the kitchen to newcomer Darren Kennedy, a young Corkman who built up a fine CV over six years working in London, including time at Michelin-starred Chez Bruce and three years as head chef at the renowned Brunswick House.
Returning to his native Cork, several years ago, Kennedy took over as head chef in St Francis Provisions, in Kinsale, and was soon garnering national attention and rave reviews.
It is a fine ‘fresh’ Friday night when Current Wife and I roll up to a heaving, bustling Sage, gleeful diners having a right royal time of it. The former ‘fine dining’ room has ‘unbuttoned its collar, thrown away the tie,’ jettisoning white linen and fancy tableware for a decidedly less formal, infinitely more down-home look. Moorish-style symmetrical star-patterned tiles feature in various spots around the room, supplemented by a selection of tasteful prints on the walls.
We start off with three snacks. Fried Chicken Crumpet features Japanese-style karaage fried chicken, tender meat, perfectly crisped coating, doused in punchy fermented chilli hot sauce. It sits on a plump and pillowy little crumpet and is topped with crème fraîche, lumpfish roe and a grate of Young Buck blue cheese. All told, a mighty morsel spanning the flavour spectrum. Mackerel Bhajis continue in this vein: crisp battered fish, also sporting a nice chilli hit, the sting softened with coriander and mint chutney and a creamy mantle of melting grated Ballinrostig gouda.
A local Rossmore oyster is served with more of that fruity fiery hot sauce and wickedly addictive crunchy house-made scampi fries. All three are cracking little mouthfuls although it might do to also offer a less fiery alternative, other than the house bread and butter, to those who aren’t fully signed up chilli freaks. There are no complaints, however, from our quarter.
Starters proper begin with confit leeks, fleshy, moist and toothsome, squatting proudly on a homely and textured ajo blanco, a denser take on classic Spanish ‘white gazpacho’ (including bread, almonds, garlic, olive oil). Roasted hazelnuts and nameko mushrooms round out the textural and flavour palette, and it’s simply begging for a glass of nutty crisp Amontillado sherry to wash it all down.
Better again is smoked beef tartare, Black Angus/Hereford cross from Frank Murphy Butchers in Midleton, aged in house and then served up as a classic raw beef tartare, sweet, tender meat topped with tangy acidic aioli, artichoke crisps and shavings of superb Shepherd’s Store.
CW’s main course is cod, crisped on the skin side, plump flesh, sliding away like glaciers in glistening slabs. The accompanying flavours and textures are not for the fainthearted: briny, rich seaweed butter sauce, meaty mussels, white asparagus, crispy cod croquette and topped with katsuobushi (dried smoked bonito) flakes, shivering and squirming in the dish’s rising heat like those polymer fortune-telling fish in Christmas crackers.
If you’re detecting a theme, that Kennedy is no shrinking violet in the kitchen, rather a fan of bold, forward flavours, then it is further confirmed with a sublimely cooked BBQ pork: three perfect slices of Darren Allen’s free range saddleback; fat rendered to near-buttery dissolution; pinkish, tender meat, wearing lightly a gently acrid and oaky smoke.
Roast fennel, nutty Beluga lentils and exquisitely sweet yet tart apple sauce round out a sinfully satisfying and blissfully comforting dish. Excellent pink fir apple potatoes on the side are simply beyond us, boxed up to take home, and babysitting limitations see us add desserts to the same package.
Accordingly, Rice Pudding, Rhubarb, Pistachio and a Beamish Tiramisu, shall not be subjected to the same critical rigour as if served in-house; suffice to say, having survived the half hour journey home in a box, they still present as extremely pleasant, the tiramisu, especially good, stout’s bitter nippy notes harmonising with cocoa of chocolate.
It is early days yet for Kennedy in his new role but on this form, his promise is more than marked, deceptively casual style and homely, unpretentious delivery underplaying an authoritative hand when it comes to wielding flavour and texture. He uses his local larder wisely, sourcing well and applying sparky grace notes from other cuisines, all resulting in some very delicious food on the plate — a most worthy ‘heir’ indeed.
Tab: €156.25 (Including drink and wine, excluding tip)
- The Courtyard, Main St, Midleton, Co. Cork
- Tel. (021) 463 9682
- Opening Hours: Wed/Thurs, 5-9pm; Fri/Sat, 4-10pm; Sun, 12.30-8pm