THE globally-revered Rene Redzepi, chef/proprietor of Copenhagen’s Noma, recently told Irish hospitality guru Tim Magee the best hope of unearthing what might be dubbed a modern Irish cuisine could only come from a total immersion in the produce and culinary traditions of the locality.
Nor did he simply mean dotting menus with a random few Irish products sourced from a supplier’s catalogue; Redzepi’s prescription was total immersion, to the point of obsession, in the produce, cultivated and foraged, of your immediate hinterland.
When it comes to local produce, Sage chef/proprietor Kevin Aherne has the obsession side very much nailed down, first unveiling his 12-Mile Menu almost a decade ago, wherein almost every single ingredient is sourced from within that self-imposed border, delivered daily by a procession of local farmers and fishermen, growers and producers.
Aherne is also that rare beast, a good chef who is an equally good restaurateur/entrepreneur; to navigate the recession years, he trimmed fiscal fat while continuing to evolve and grow his business.
The Greenroom, a casual dining wing serving craft beers, wines and tapas, opened several years ago while the newly-expanded courtyard sports an outdoor bar and sheltered ‘mini-barn’.
Mrs Driver (to my Mr Daisy) and I come, however, for the main show, a fixed four-course menu (€45) in the original tidy little dining room, also freshly made over, the former bar area now surrendered for more seating.
Wines, obviously, are less ‘local’ but the list is considered and original.
We select a natural Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny 2012 with a funky, fresh nose, black fruit, chalky tannins and a long, supple finish that lengthens with the evening.
Bearing a finely calibrated hunger, we ravage potato sourdough flatbread, dredging it in lovage and parsley rapeseed oil.
Then follows an amuse bouche of sweet young goat’s cheese, peppery nasturtium leaf and sharp young sorrel cutting through the fat.
Aherne is very lucky to have Woodside Farm fall within his 12-Mile dominion.
The melting sweet shreds of meat in Pork Shoulder Ravioli come from Woodside’s genuinely free-ranging pigs and it exudes the natural farmyard flavours of their ‘terroir’.
But to reach the meat, you first navigate a nutty pillow of pasta coated in an exquisite cream of smoked Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese.
I consume the first in a single mouthful, only halving the second to prolong the pleasure before winsomely mopping up the remaining sauce with more potato bread — a splendid dish that I hate to see ending.
Mrs Driver has an excellent Atlantic Squid squid served in tagliatelle-like strips, marine umami from sea spaghetti and an almost bacon-y bite from crisped tentacle ends.
Next is exquisite turbot, silky, firm and succulent, underpinned by earthy spinach. Mrs D takes hers a little slower, finding it over-salted in comparison to mine.
A hound for the seafood, she follows with Cod, Samphire, Beech Mushroom.
Tender lamb cannon, sweet and pink, is partnered with al-dente cabbage and a crisp sweetbread croquette.
Mash potato also suffers from an excess of salt but the replacement is divine, further enhanced by the gentle onion notes of chive flowers.
We finish with desserts or, rather, they finish me: Chocolate, Honey, Salt, a dense mousse with a crisp base, all from Shana Wilkie’s exquisite bean-to-bar chocolate, is consigned to the doggy bag after a single, superb sampling; Mrs D, made of sterner stuff, puts down her equally good Strawberry, Sweet Labneh, Meringue in the first round.
That I’ve enjoyed yet another fine meal in Sage doesn’t remotely surprise me; it is to the fore of a select band of Irish restaurants determinedly questing for that elusive modern Irish cuisine in the manner prescribed by Redzepi.
Aherne’s cooking evolves with each passing year and his ever-increasing intimacy with that palette of local produce.
It is technically assured yet presents on the plate with deceptive, elemental simplicity, the intention, to entertain, not intimidate.
For every destination diner or hungry hipster chalking down another food experience, there are so many more locals returning to eat what they recognise as very good, very tasty food that begins and ends in the place they call home.
Sounds very much like one of the fundamentals of a national cuisine, maybe even an emerging modern Irish one.
€131.50 (excluding tip)
Lunch (Thurs-Sun, 12pm-3pm)/Dinner (Tues-Sun 5.30pm-9.30pm)
‘Locals return to eat what they recognise as very good, very tasty food that begins and ends in the place they call home.’