Several years ago, I stumbled across a copy of the first Bridgestone Guide, published in 1992.
Written by John and Sally McKenna, it commenced a series of now internationally renowned Irish food guides that, in retrospect, serve as culinary — even sociological — histories, documenting the evolution of the Irish food world over several decades.
There is a chapter in the first, entitled ‘Schull – The Food Town’, praising the West Cork seaside village as a beacon of epicurean enlightenment (growers, producers, restaurants, cafes etc) long before the modern Irish food revolution ever gripped popular imagination.
I have been haunting West Cork for decades, and when I first began to zone in on Schull those praiseworthy elements still held strong but, sadly, no longer.
It is no failing on the part of her citizenry or visitors; it is simply the nature of things, changing market forces and Rural Ireland’s decline.
The local producer/grower scene is still thriving and on the hospitality front, the battle continues: John and Bridie D’Alton have fought hard to ensure the survival of the iconic Newman’s pub, upgrading and adding a café; the homely charms of Hackett’s pub are further augmented by always excellent soup; and I have been mightily impressed by a bright new café, Nickie’s Kitchen, crab salad especially recommended.
But it has been some time since it was possible to head out of an evening in anticipation of exceptional food or anything even approaching that.
Schull Harbour Hotel was birthed during the Celtic Tiger and buried in NAMA without doing anything to change this state of affairs.
When it subsequently re-emerged, I visited on a professional assignment for another publication. It was quite comfortably one of the worst dining experiences of my life, dismal food, chaotic service, so bad My Heart’s Delight and I could do little other than laugh. It took the arrival of new head chef Fred Desormeaux to persuade us to return.
Desormeaux came to Ireland in 2001 and like many before him became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, falling in love with place, people and produce.
As a native Breton, he has an especial affinity with seafood; an impromptu barfood lunch is rewarded with exceptional fish (haddock in light, crispy batter) and chips. There and then, we make a booking for the restaurant.
Chapters Restaurant has received a makeover and even if certain homogenous stylistic tics are reminiscent of 1980’s yuppie wine bars, it is undeniably warm and welcoming.
No 2 Son wields a defensive fork over his West Cork Crab Cannelloni but as MHD and I attack on two fronts, it is a losing rearguard action.
‘Cannelloni’ is strips of pickled cucumber, encasing sweet fresh crabmeat blended with lime mayonnaise, punchy roast garlic aioli alongside.
It is exquisite. Tartefine of Sunblush Tomato Pesto, Wilted Spinach, St. Tola Goats Cheese & Poached Egg with a Lemon Hollandaise might seem overcrowded but nuanced flavours are perfectly poised and complimentary, down to the gentle chilli nudge in pesto, the entirety anointed with golden viscous yoke.
Flash Grilled Dublin Bay Prawns with a Lemon, Garlic & Parsley Butter are an exercise in elemental simplicity, minimal messing with sublime crustaceous charms. No 2 Son’s medium-rare 10oz Ribeye Steak with Bordelaise Sauce is French bistro cooking with a strong Irish accent.
‘Bourguignon’ Style Monkfish is a deeply comforting affair, the fish’s meatiness further emphasised by Gubbeen Smokey Bacon and a Red Wine Jus.
Pan fried Fresh Scallops are swollen, luscious, bedded on creamy risotto concealing umami landmines of smoked duck.
For dessert we all opt for fresh raspberry Crème Brulée, tart fruit a bright counterpoint for velvety rich custard.
A great meal but there is still some way to go: an upgraded winelist is an immediate imperative and service needs to be addressed. (Dining in the bar, I’m offered a menu by four separate servers, after my order has been taken! It is the least egregious of myriad failings.)
Restaurant opening hours need to be expanded, particularly during the tourist season.
But with Desormeaux’s arrival, a corner has been turned. Despite his classical training and serious technical ability, he eschews foams or fiddly bits, instead serving generous, elegant dishes bursting with flavour and a ‘sense of place’.
Chapters Restaurant at Schull Harbour Hotel
Tel. 028 28801
Barfood: Seven days, 12pm-9pm
Restaurant: Fri & Sat, 6.30pm- 9pm ‘Sunday Roast’ 12.30pm-5.30pm
Tab: €175 (including drinks and tip)
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