Food capital: Joe McNamee rates Cork’s top restaurants

Is Cork still the culinary capital? Joe McNamee has his say – and profiles the restaurants that are doing it right.

Food capital: Joe McNamee rates Cork’s top restaurants

“There are three [best restaurants in Ireland] and it hurts me as a Dubliner that all of them are outside the capital city. Come with me then, though it sticks in my craw, for a gastronomic trot around the County of Cork.” – Cathal O’Shannon, 1971.

This was how the late, great broadcaster introduced his 1971 film, Cork’s Glorious Food, following an introductory evisceration of the Irish hospitality sector at the time, concurring with international food critics that, save a handful of restaurants, it was truly dire.

Those three exceptional restaurants were Ballymaloe House, Arbutus Lodge and Ballylickey Manor House and, a few short years later, all were to pick up the first Michelin Stars to be held in Ireland.

Ballylickey Manor House
Ballylickey Manor House

Add in a centuries-old history of provisioning and international trading in food and wine, including at one stage hosting the largest butter market in Europe, and Cork’s claims to be Ireland’s ‘Food Capital’ were rarely questioned. But, is that still the case today?

It is one of the questions being raised at Innovation in Irish Food: Past, Present and Future, a UCC conference taking place this weekend, with one of the organisers, food historian Regina Sexton, saying, “There has been a sense in certain quarters that we have lost that crown, that maybe the dynamic energy driving the local food culture forward has lost some of its impetus.”

Modern Irish hospitality began with Myrtle Allen and Ballymaloe House.

“What Cork did going right back to ’64, with Myrtle to the fore,” says food writer John McKenna, of McKennas’ Guides, “was to establish the template that really valued the Irish welcome, that became the foundation of Irish hospitality.

"Before then, food was part of the hotel business, all French, formal and learned in a Swiss finishing school. This new hospitality didn’t care about four or five stars, what mattered was the hosts were spontaneous and unpretentious. That is the great gift of Ballymaloe and it was copied by everyone.”

Darina Allen At Ballymaloe Cookery School
Darina Allen At Ballymaloe Cookery School

Hazel Allen, manager of Ballymaloe House, first arrived there in 1969.

“Back then,” says Allen, “and more or less through the 70s, good restaurants were few and far between. You’d travel a long way to get a good meal in a restaurant.

"The Blue Book [guide to Irish country house hotels and restaurants] started in ‘74 and, at that time, that network of food people was very small, there weren’t many restaurants of that type. That culture of eating out just wasn’t there.”

“All those Blue Book people were a race apart,” says food writer Georgina Campbell, of Georgina Campbell hospitality guides, “always thinking outside the box, laying the foundations for Irish hospitality, but Myrtle was in the vanguard. She put a national focus on the link between fine Irish produce and good hospitality.”

Declan Ryan
Declan Ryan

As proprietor of Arbutus Lodge, Declan Ryan earned the very first Michelin Star in Ireland in 1974 (along with Dublin’s Russell Hotel, for a single year).

“Myrtle Allen was a giant, the ‘produce queen’ — as Darina is today — they had a huge influence but I couldn’t be influenced by them because they were too close to me in Cork.

"It wasn’t begrudgery or anything, I always hugely admired them but didn’t want to be influenced by anyone close to me so I didn’t even buy their books.

Myrtle Allen
Myrtle Allen

"We looked to France. We were very much influenced by classical French and combined that with foraged ingredients — long before ‘foraged’ was even a word —and regional dishes unique to Cork, spiced beef, tripe and drisheen.

"When you come from a city with a deep, deep history in the provision trade, you’re bound to have things like that, and the English Market was always marvelous.”

In the late 80s, legendary food writer Andrea Petrini travelled to Ireland spurred by his huge love of Irish literature but he was astonished to also discover a burgeoning food movement, the bulk of it in Cork city and county and he singled out chef Michael Clifford (Clifford’s, on Cork’s Mardyke), as ‘revolutionary’ in a pan-European context for his use of ‘peasant’ produce in Michelin-style dishes.

Then the early 90s saw the near-simultaneous openings of Café Paradiso and The Ivory Tower.

“Denis Cotter [Café Paradiso] and Seamus O’Connell [Ivory Tower] were 20 years ahead of their time,” says McKenna, “it took everyone else long a time to catch up with them — some of the techniques they were using are only becoming commonplace now. Seamus knew classical French, Mexican, Japanese.

Denis Cotter, Café Paradiso.
Denis Cotter, Café Paradiso.

"It’s commonplace to spot the influences now but back then it was a different thing. The thing that unites them is they were trailblazers.”

In 1977, the late, lamented Veronica Steele began her first experimentation with farmhouse cheesemaking, dubbed by McKenna as the ‘big bang’ of modern Irish food production.

Within a decade, the county of Cork alone could provide an internationally renowned cheeseboard (Milleens, Durrus, Gubbeen, Coolea, Ardrahan) fit to grace any world table.

This new-found spirit of innovation and creativity began to have a trickle-down effect and soon the county’s traditional agricultural bounty was becoming the literal fodder for a new producer movement.

Veronica Steele
Veronica Steele

“I don’t think anyone could argue that Cork was and still is the food production capital of Ireland,” says Campbell, “For a start, it’s such a big county, there is so much variety in terms of the climate and what can be grown and the high standards and longevity of the farming community.”

In the early 90s, some of these new producers joined traditional stallholders in Cork’s iconic English Market, beginning with West Cork farmers and cheesemakers Anne Marie Jaumaud and Martin Guillemot.

They were soon followed by Isabelle Sheridan, first selling her own homemade charcuterie then branching out into cheeses, Irish and French, and today her On the Pig’s Back empire is integral to the market’s identity.

Toby Simmonds’ Real Olive Company began trading there around the same time and his range of Levantine produce had a profound impact on the palates of ordinary Corkonians and those working in the local hospitality sector.

This new blood rejuvenated a market that had been rapidly ceding ground to out-of-town shopping centres.

Kay Harte is proprietor of the Farmgate Café & Restaurant, also sited in the market.

“It’s been very exciting and a joy to watch the market grow and evolve into the market of today. Running a café in Cork city or county is a real pleasure in terms of easy access to such outstanding food.”

Kay Harte
Kay Harte

Campbell is also a huge fan: “One of the glories of Cork food is that the English Market has hung in and has not been spoilt and Cork has always been the food capital because the English Market was and is the heart of food in the city.”

But it is 20-plus years since that era of intense culinary creativity in Cork and neither the riches of the Celtic Tiger era nor the belt-tightening of the recession have managed to spark a return to those heights.

That’s not to say there aren’t good restaurants in Cork: the 2017 edition of the McKennas’ Guides Top 100 Restaurants in Ireland features 18 Cork establishments, across city and county.

“If an international traveller arrived in Cork for the weekend,” says Ballymaloe Cookery School’s Rory O’Connell, “and lunched in the Crawford Gallery on Friday, ate in Miyazaki that night, lunched in the Farmgate on Saturday, dined in Café Paradiso that night, went to Sage in Midleton for Sunday lunch, they would think they were in a serious food capital.

Kevin Aherne of Sage, Midleton, Co Cork. “You don’t want to be eating ‘ fine ’ food every day, you also want simpler comfort food as well.” Picture: David Keane
Kevin Aherne of Sage, Midleton, Co Cork. “You don’t want to be eating ‘ fine ’ food every day, you also want simpler comfort food as well.” Picture: David Keane

"On the other hand, if they weren’t quite as fortuitous in their choices, they might question that.”

“Currently, in Cork,” says McKenna, “we have the best ethnic food in Iyer’s and Miyazaki, they are the hottest tickets in town.

"Cork is very strong in the middle market but you think back 25 years and remember how radical Denis and Seamus were back then. We need more trailblazers like them, young blades, young bucks.”

Allen reckons Cork still has a great variety, particularly out of town: “Apart from East Cork, as you head west you have Pilgrims, in Rosscarbery, Mews in Baltimore, and Hehir Island Cottage restaurant.

"If one wanted to go to a county in Ireland and try out lots of good food, Cork would definitely be the place.”

For Campbell, Ballymaloe remains the benchmark: “It is the crowning glory of our industry, it brings together so many threads and it is quite extraordinary how it has grown organically over the years, it has just added layers, from members of the family who have had talents in particular areas.

If you were coming from abroad, hadn’t done your homework and stayed there, it would come across as an extraordinary experience.

And though the model is changing for that kind of fine dining country house, they continue to hold their own and are very innovative in holding events such as Litfest, Gardenfest, the craft fairs.”

In recent years, others have felt it their turn to don the ‘Food Capital’ crown, most recently Galway.

Not long before that, it was Kilkenny. Both are great cities with some great restaurants and local producers.

Both also sport a pair of Michelin-starred restaurants apiece while Cork currently has none and hasn’t had one for several decades. But if Michelin stars were the defining factor then surely that makes Dublin the ‘Food Capital’.

“The Food Capital of Ireland now is Dublin,” says O’Connell, “without a doubt, it’s almost an unfair comparison.”

McKenna, however, believes the centres of real innovation lie elsewhere: “Loam and Aniar have made the reputation of Galway just as Ox and Dani Barry at Eipic, have made the reputation of Belfast.”

Or perhaps Cork has simply been leaning up against the wall catching its breath waiting for the rest of the country to catch up.

“What happened with all that excitement, energy and innovation in Cork in the 70s, 80s and 90s,” says Sexton, “is now happening in other parts of Ireland —which is wonderful — and in all of this new phase of development for Irish food, some may perceive Cork to have actually fallen behind a little bit.”

So, what does Cork require to start leading out the field once more?

“Cork isn’t a cheap city,” says McKenna, “Galway isn’t a cheap city either but Galway’s cheaper West end was where Aniar got started, how [Loam chef/proprietor] Enda McEvoy got going.

"If there’s one ingredient a dynamic food culture needs, it is cheap rents. We already have the dynamic chefs. That’s why we have featured unusual venues in the McKennas’ Guides, such as chef Kevin Pyke, in Derry, who began operating out of a food cart. `

"We were in Kilkenny recently and came across a shipping container with a wood-fired oven that cost a total of €16k. We need people in Cork opening up in shipping containers.

"If you had a couple of young chefs with the ability to do that, to do more pop ups, make a bit of money, they could eventually invest in a bigger place.”

“It takes exceptional character,” says O’Connell, “Seamus and Denis were exceptional characters, not just great cooks. The openings are there, Cork people are great to go out and eat but I think a lot of what is on offer is just not good enough.

"I’m astonished by the knowledge of ingredients and cuisines that young people have now. If someone started doing really good Middle Eastern food in Cork in the morning, I think it would be out the door. If I was young and full of energy … !”

In the heel of the hunt, perhaps, we’re better off parking internecine parochialism altogether.

“Cork has enjoyed a reputation, deservedly, for wonderful quality food,” says Harte, “but marketing should not develop into a shouting match about who is the ‘culinary capital’.

"Ireland is a very small and beautiful patch of land, we need to collaborate, not compete, and finally, we ALL need to create a sustainable food culture and one that is more inclusive. End of.”

Richard Evans Proprietor Greenes Restaurant, with Chef Bryan McCarthy, in Cask Bar, 48 MacCurtain Street, Cork. “The logic behind Cask was we had been on a journey with Greene’s restaurant, taking it to places we wanted to go with really good food but we didn’t have balance, with just a small bar in Greene’s. The idea was to use the whole venue,,” says Evans. Picture: John Sheehan.
Richard Evans Proprietor Greenes Restaurant, with Chef Bryan McCarthy, in Cask Bar, 48 MacCurtain Street, Cork. “The logic behind Cask was we had been on a journey with Greene’s restaurant, taking it to places we wanted to go with really good food but we didn’t have balance, with just a small bar in Greene’s. The idea was to use the whole venue,,” says Evans. Picture: John Sheehan.
  • Kevin Aherne, Chef/Proprietor, Sage Restaurant, Midleton, Co Cork

“We wanted it to be a destination for everyone, not to be exclusive, that everyone would be a part of the food experience. You cannot eat in a fine dining restaurant every day, it’s not feasible, people can’t afford it and you don’t want to be eating ‘fine’ food every day, you also want simpler comfort food as well.

"Plus in a restaurant serving contemporary Irish food, you get less of the spicy foods, stuff like hot curries, middle eastern dishes, which I also love eating.

"It meant we had the two options, they could decide which one they wanted and we were covering all angles. We’re trying to sell an ‘experience’ in Sage rather than just ‘going for your dinner,’ whereas next door in The Greenroom, you can pop in a couple of times a week for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or even just a glass of wine or a craft beer and a snack.

"We opened smack in the middle of the recession in 2012 but we knew it needed to be done, I could see where the perception of fine dining was going, that it was stuffy, not a comfortable place to be but the option of a causal space alongside created an atmosphere of inclusivity, that it was not for everyone — and reinforced the point that Sage, anyway, is not a stuffy environment.”

  • Richard Evans, Proprietor, Greene’s Restaurant, Isaac’s Hotel and the recently-opened Cask bar

"I suppose the logic behind Cask was we had been on a journey with Greene’s restaurant, taking it to places we wanted to go with really good food but we didn’t have balance, with just a small bar in Greene’s.

"The idea was to use the whole venue, and the old-fashioned Victorian entrance passageway lent itself to the overall idea. We also wanted to introduce Greene’s to a new generation, a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s, possibly with young families, who might only go out once a month could see the place as a multi-purpose venue for their whole evening, beginning with a drink and a bite in Cask and then maybe dinner in Greene’s or the other way round — Greene’s offers a really good dining experience and isn’t too expensive and with a really good early bird menu.

"People might even come for the whole night and stay in the hotel! MacCurtain Street is such a lovely area and Cask adds to what we are offering is good for the street and good for the north of the river and good for Cork.”

‘Vision for the future’

Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present and Future (March 10-12) is organised by food historians Regina Sexton (UCC) and Dr Chad Ludlington (Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow/School of History) and will feature food historians, food geographers, food scientists, business leaders, food producers, restaurateurs, and food writers.

Production and consumption of food is a global issue with enormous local ramifications and the conference aims to unite some of the multi-disciplinary expertise in UCC with the broader local food community in the self-styled “food capital of Ireland” with the aim of forming a food vision for the 21st century.

(Registration is open and free but booking is essential

Says Sexton: “If there is a strengthening of the relationship between the local food community and the university, it could lead to very exciting things in the future and continue to create that very authentic food culture for the city that is based on research and legacy and that you can develop into something that is unique to the region.

"We’re looking to the past, we’re looking at the present and seeing if this conversation can provide some sort of template for a vision for the future of Cork’s food culture.”

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