When renowned former Sunday Times restaurant reviewer AA Gill died of cancer in 2016, I empathised, for him, his wife and young children; most sentient beings would do likewise, I assume, particularly males like myself, of vaguely similar vintage and familial setup.
Yet I failed to echo the online torrent of hagiographical grief for I confess to never really enjoying him as a food critic.
As a prose stylist, he was often superb and very funny with it, but — along with a suspicion his overly flaunted culinary ‘omniscience’ was not all it seemed — the relish with which he administered regular, sometimes brutal hidings left me in the end rather cold. There is of course an audience for this class of thing, schadenfreude at the puncturing of perceived culinary pomposity.
Gill disembowelled; his fans gleefully snuffled amongst the entrails.
(Yes, I know, sometimes it has to be done. Unlike most newspaper critics, we at the Irish Examiner pay for meals we review from our own pockets so a bad dining experience hurts me like any ordinary punter yet, while my own negative reviews invariably generate more clamour than any raves dished out, I avoid dancing on graves merely to titillate the readership, it seeming both callous and crass.)
However, the one time I was in absolute accordance with Gill was when he reviewed the Farmgate Café (a tribute so warm, fulsome and sincere, it buttressed a notion posited recently by fellow Irish food critic, the splendid Ernie Whalley, that hatchet jobs, across multiple publications, were often demanded by old school ‘pitbull’ editors reasoning, ‘blood sells’).
The Farmgate is on a mezzanine covering three sides of the Prince’s Street end of the English Market, overlooking the iconic fountain and the endless river of humanity below. On one side is the café, ideal for a casual repast, speedy lunching on the fly.
At peak times, diners perch along the railing like starlings, riotous chatter soaring into vaulted rafters above.
Opposite, the enclosed dining room is an intimate affair: dark wood, chessboard floor tiles, plush leather banquette along one side of the room.
Above it runs a series of handwritten poems (including Michael Davitt, John Montague and Seamus Heaney), a beautiful project curated by Cork poet Gerry Murphy and dubbed, ‘The Great Wall of Cork’. Enter this sanctuary and the world without vanishes entirely, for as long as you choose to stay.
The Judge and No 1 Son are on temporary release so we wistfully spurn a smart little wine list and order. No 1 Son’s starter is a fine and herbaceous Chicken Liver Pate, nicely paired with tart spiced apple.
Some 41 years since I first met The Judge in boarding school, I fancy, by now, to have the measure of his epicurean inclinations:
Durcan’s Lamb Shank, I presume?
He grins in confirmation. Slow-braised in wine, herbs and garlic, ’til luscious meat lifts from the bone, it rests on firm butter beans, cooked perfectly in the divine meat sauce, bright, lemony salsa verde, an excellent counterpoint.
My Ballinrostig Smoked Cheese (Gouda?), Potato, Leek & Carmelised Onion Tart is quite delicious: robust pastry housing wonderfully ‘gooey’ filling. I dive into the melange, recalibrating swooning palate with crisp salad leaves.
The meat in No 1 Son’s Irish Stew is tender, sweet and exquisite alongside al dente turnip and plump grains of barley, swollen with meaty liquor. We conclude with good coffees and shortbread biscuits.
The essence and ethos of the Farmgate menus, a contemporary Irish Bistro-style take on old classics, cooking produce sourced almost entirely from the market below, has remained consistent through the years under several head chefs but current incumbent, Pam Kelly, brings vast experience, technical precision and a keen palate, ensuring traditional dishes your grandparents’ grandparents would have recognised and relished remain as vital and relevant as ever.
My relationship with the Farmgate spans the entirety of its 24 years and, five years ago, it gained an even deeper emotional undertow.
Rocked to the core by a recent bereavement, I met an old friend for a cathartic lunch in the Dining Room, lingering on ’til December dusk descended and the market itself was turning in for the night.
On certain days, I have no problem declaring it my favourite restaurant in the world. That was one of those days. This is another.