Cornstore fills niche

LAST TIME I visited Limerick, one of the highlights of the trip was an evening meal with friends in The French Table.

On Steamboat Quay, we found a classy, hard-working restaurant run by a couple bringing a personal touch to the table, and flair to the plate.

This time, we went a different route, booking at The Cornstore on Thomas Street. Readers may be familiar with the name — Pádraic Frawley’s concept began life on Cork’s Cornmarket Street, mixing seafood and steaks, wine and cocktails and DJs and live jazz on weekends in a Manhattan-style setting. Limerick’s is its sister restaurant.

We’re not expecting personality. Which isn’t to say, of course, that head chef Maura Baxter’s job is any easier than Thomas Fialon’s at The French Table. Sure, diners at the latter have higher foodie expectations. But they’re also choosing from a shorter, specialised menu. Baxter has to please all sorts of people, all the time, marshalling a long menu crammed with diverse dishes.

It is too long, in fact. And too crammed. Arriving at 6.30pm with kids in tow, L and I struggle to choose from its lists of starters, shared dishes like crusty garlic bread loaf and prawn pil pil, and over two dozen main courses filed under fish, veggie, from the grill and mains — a catch-all category encompassing everything from Lamb Korma to Thai green chicken curry.

That’s just the a la carte. A value menu offers three courses for €25.95 from Sunday through Wednesday, and €29.95 from Thursday to Saturday. I like the fact that suppliers like McCarthy’s Butchers in Kanturk and Ballycotton Seafood are listed, but it’s all just too much for a kitchen trying to match quantity with quality.

But then my starter arrives — a skillet of Kinsale mussels spotted with cubes of McCarthy’s black pudding, and mollycoddled in a whiskey cream sauce. It’s a huge portion, and it tastes good. The mussels are not too chewy, nor steamed into oblivion. The cream pooling at the bottom of the Staub skillet isn’t strong-armed by spirits — there’s just whiff enough of whiskey to make it work.

L, meanwhile, orders the chicken wings — which are gluten-free and come with a blue cheese dip. The skin texture is wet, rather than crisp, but the dressing intrigues. Honey, butter and Louisiana Hot Sauce are ingredients we can coax out of the waiter, but the secret stays with the chef.

The room grows on us too. Comparing oneself to Manhattan is asking for trouble, but the Cornstore doesn’t lack atmosphere. It is moodily lit, the metal and black paint feel industrial, the bare brick adds a warehouse feel, and the squat leather chairs, fashionably-distressed mirrors and little blasts of Belle Époque in the ferns and tasselled lampshades add warmth — even decadence.

“It feels like it used to be a nightclub,” L says. And yet, the crowd is mixed. Families, groups of girlfriends and older couples share neighbouring tables. A friendly waitress brings crayons and drawing sheets — portraying scenes from Pixar’s Ratatouille — for the kids. The burger they share is dry and forgettable, but the range of choices on the children’s menu is decent.

My main course comes from the grill — a rib-eye with home-cut chips, Caesar salad and béarnaise sauce. The steak is good — thick as my wrist, seared just long enough to melt the marbleised streaks of fat into its flesh, and surprisingly tender. The leaves, however, let it down. They’re swamped in an overly-gooey dressing. The béarnaise is knocked off-balance by too much vinegar.

L orders the duck, which comes with beetroot confit, sautéed spinach, mashed potatoes and red wine jus. The skin is crispy, the flesh well-cooked, but it’s a lacklustre dish — in taste and presentation. Desserts are also 50/50. My lemon posset, served on a rhubarb compote, is more custardy than tangy. L’s flourless chocolate cake, however, gets the thumbs-up.

Clearly, the Cornstore fills a niche. I prefer Thomas Fialon’s cooking myself (and it’s worth pointing out we paid slightly more for our food at the Cornstore), but I’d imagine more punters come to Thomas Street.

In a choice between the two, perhaps the real winner is Limerick.

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