Gongs well earned

CORK’S Phoenix Street, and there are back streets like it in every town and city in the world, is unlikely to feature in any architect’s primer, at least in any positive way.

It’s a tight little street, almost an alley choked for air, struggling for its fair share of daylight. It’s kept breathing by the foot traffic brought by a busy bar entrance and a very good restaurant.

It has one memorable feature though.

There is a wall almost covered with those food-awards tablets that tell you you’ve arrived at a place with a reputation for good food to protect.

Phoenix Street, thanks to Jacque and Eithne Barry’s cheering and excellent Jacques Restaurant, has its very own gallery of gongs.

Like one of those great old, defiant Russian veterans of World War II, wearing a half acre of medals on his chest, there’s hardly a place left for another honour. Even one more might make the building topple over like a pavlova gone soggy from too much cream.

There’s more than a decade’s worth of Bridgestone awards — Jacques is more or less a fixture in Bridgestone Ireland’s best 100 — Georgina Campbell’s and more than enough others to tempt anyone with even a moderate interest in good food to stop.

It is hard not to be a tad suspicious of some food awards but the consistent excellence and experience reflected in the huge array on Jacques’ wall makes it easy — and justified — to file those concerns away for another day.

It is a relaxed, unpretentious place dedicated to getting the best out of local produce by using cooking skills at ease with themselves. There’s a kind of contentment about the cooking that has its calming affect on guests. There’s nothing flash or empty about it, it’s substantial, and in the very best way, basic.

There were six starters. I enjoyed a fine salt ‘n’ pepper squid with lime and sauces, though had the batter been tastier it would have matched the standards set by the rest of the meal.

My companion — DW — had parsnip fritter with a walnut blue cheese whirl and was, most unusually, reluctant to share even a taste it was so good.

DW opted for what can sometimes be a risky main course from a choice of seven — two fish, four meat and one vegetarian. She chose spinach risotto, with raisins, pine kernels and sherry vinegar. Risotto can sometimes be stultifying and so densely monochrome you could imagine you are watching fossils of the next millennia settling in rings on your plate. Not in Phoenix Street though, this was a lovely layered set of tastes all retaining their own character but brought together by a rich, creamy base.

My main course could not have been simpler or much better. Fresh lemon sole on the bone with lemon and chive butter. It was served with green beans, fried potatoes and was, after a busy day, the kind of celebration that can make life so very enjoyable and maybe even understandable. There was one of those meals on the menu that you might have chosen on another day, one you can use as an excuse to go back another day: Pichanha steak served rare or medium rare.

There were five desserts. Nothing out of the ordinary but each one perfectly capable of holding its own. DW chose what turned out to be a fine meringue roulade, not too sweet, not too hard but with a nice sharpness on a seductive sugary background.

I ended a lovely meal with a traditional pudding fallen foul of the calorie police — apple and cider bread and butter pudding that was lovely but would have been even nicer if the accompanying ice cream was not so heavily spiced making contrast difficult.

Jacques is in business for the bones of 30 years. In what can be a cutthroat business you have to do most things to a very high standard to survive so very long. They do.

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