WHILE there will always be charlatans in the restaurant trade — as in all walks of life — the huge surge in promoting local produce on Irish menus is, for the most part, genuine.
But those chefs truly embracing the concept of ‘Eat Local’ are a much rarer breed.
Last summer, I visited Sage to sample their 12-mile lunch menu in which everything bar butter and cream (from Co Cork, nonetheless) and sugar and salt came from within a 12-mile radius: seafood from Ballycotton; free range pork from the renowned Woodside Farm; Kenneally’s aged Angus beef from Garryvoe; Tom Clancy’s exquisite Ballycotton Free Range Poultry and a wide variety of produce from local growers. The execution was as sound as the ethos and I came away mightily impressed.
Sage is in a old stoneclad building through an archway just off Midleton’s main street, the softly-lit modern interior is cosy and very discreetly finished. A large opening in the wall into the kitchen doubles as serving hatch and ‘performance space’ for Chef/Proprietor Kevin Aherne and his crew.
I am still ailing a tad following a Christmas of 7-Up, steroids and antibiotics and not so much as a sniff of turkey, so am perfectly happy to be choosing from Sage’s Christmas-themed menu and have dragged along a strapping younger sibling to take up any slack should I start lagging behind.
I begin with Hake and Chorizo Fishcakes with Caper Aioli and Tomato Salsa. Fishcakes, like steak, can be a handy means of evaluating a restaurant. Too many are cannonballs of spud at best rested against the side of an aquarium for all their piscine content, so the good ones stand out. This stood out, plenty of fish, bound with an airy mash encased in a nutty, crisp coating.
The Brother’s Organic Smoked Salmon with Beetroot Fritters and Apricot, Caper and Toasted Almond dressing was drawing equally appreciative moans from across the table so I swiftly organised a raiding party. I would have preferred the salmon just a tad cooler but I could see what The Brother was getting at.
On first taste, I thought a Joven (young) Ribera del Duoro Pena Roble 2010 might have been a bad call: light, fruity, but none of the musculature of more mature Riberas. But in tandem with my main course, Roast free range duck with dauphine potatoes, red cabbage and bitter cranberry sauce, it refreshed perfectly. The twice-cooked duck, braised, shredded and then bound together in clarified butter and pan-fried, was rich and succulent.
Even nicer, though, was The Brother’s Chicken Supreme, brussels sprout, pea and pancetta hash with grain mustard cream. Serious chefs find it very hard to sell chicken to the Irish punter, most of us believing it so commonplace. Well, do like Aherne and purchase top quality produce. Then cook it to perfection, a juicy, buttery white meat just beyond pink, meltingly tender.
For dessert, he opts for Warm Double Chocolate and Cranberry Tart, pleasant if a little uninspiring. My Christmas dessert platter is a chocolate concoction somewhere between mousse and parfait, again pleasant but it doesn’t linger; an unctuous and delicious sliver of Christmas pud somehow managing to be simultaneously light and rich; and a stunning Ardsallagh goat’s cheese and cranberry roulade. The Brother agrees about the roulade, savouring at great length, the miserable morsel I pass his way.
Aherne’s cooking is deceptively simple, shorn of the plated fireworks too many — chefs and diners — believe to be the mark of serious cuisine but he has an astonishingly evolved and confident palate in one so young; traditional staples are given discreet little twists, spicy lifts reflecting the well-travelled Aherne’s voracious curiosity about food. Yet he never loses his audience. To date, he has beavered away quietly, making a huge success of a restaurant in a small rural town, in itself a huge recommendation. However, I suspect it can’t be too long before he achieves national renown.
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