Cork: The land of the brave

Church Lane Restaurant, Macroom, Co Cork, 026-23402 and facebook

Church Lane Restaurant is set in a lovely old house in the grounds of the church just west of Macroom town square, the dining areas are spread over five rooms like this one — the grey room. Picture: Denis Minihane

YEARS ago, possibly in a moment of heightened emotions during a particularly inspiring Mountain Dew Ffestival, the town of Macroom was declared a nuclear free zone by a small but sincere group of hairy activists.

I’m not sure if that beautifully innocent writ still runs but, as is usual with these grand gestures, the capacity to enforce it had not been considered. That, however, did not in any way impinge on the integrity of the assertion. Irish idealism, thankfully, has never been constrained by what is possible or not.

Usually, a deliberately unthreatening Hibernian adaptation of René Descartes “I think, therefore I am” — “we think, therefore it is” — passes for change and makes Tuesday week’s revolution unnecessary before even one banker is hung. The Macroom Nuclear Declaration had though a small-town quaintness that has, in this instance at least, survived the intervening decades’, ’em, advances.

Today the concerns are different and on too many levels far more pressing and destructive than any happy posturing about something that was never going to happen anyway. However, one comparatively unimportant but nonetheless mysterious issue remains a constant.

Anyone who wants to find a restaurant in the Lee Valley, or anywhere between Cork and Killarney really, that is something more than a pit stop is not over-burdened with choice. The options, though plentiful, are rudimentary and largely uninspiring. The Loire Valley it ain’t.

There are lots of decent — and too many not so decent — places to sate an appetite but very few where the experience goes beyond bulking up with carbs and bought-in, thawed-out desserts. Most of the restaurants are functional rather than uplifting. Tragically, on this scale at least, most menus seem the result of inbreeding and are as predictable and as they are limited.

This is very hard to understand in a region book-ended by Kinsale and Kenmare, towns that have almost defined themselves through good or very good restaurants. It is as if the enthusiasm for the new food culture of recent years has bypassed the area but that can’t really be, because the place is full of really excellent food producers and lots of people interested in good food and good restaurants. Because of this the news of a new restaurant opening in the area is always welcome.

So it was when local sisters Cheryl and Laura O’Connor opened the Church Lane Restaurant in September. Set in a lovely old house in the grounds of the church just west of the town square, the dining areas are spread over five rooms so all sorts of permutations are possible.

The food? Even though it was far, far better than most of the local alternatives it was pretty unambitious. It was not that it was anything less than good but the bar was set far lower than anything that would extend the more-than-capable Church Lane kitchen. Ambition, not expertise, was the issue.

DW opened with bruschetta and goat’s cheese with basil and tomato. It was absolutely fine but it’s still cheese on toast no matter what you call it. I had a very nice smoked salmon tartlet with a leek and caper compote, it was my best dish of the evening.

For her main course DW chose lamb hot pot which was a bowl of stew with a tennis ball sized piece of puff pastry, which had been cooked separately, plonked on top. The description was an overreach and, though it was as plain and comforting as stew can be, it was hardly the stuff of rapture. I chose spare ribs, which were served with a green salad and fries. Nothing wrong with it but nothing even vaguely memorable either.

Desserts were good, a very sweet apple crumble and a decent sticky toffee pudding. We drank a lovely Fleurie, Joseph Drouhin 2010. One to remember, especially as it, comparatively, represents very good value.

Anyone brave enough to open a restaurant in 2012 is to be supported and encouraged but it may be that Church Lane is selling itself short. The setting, the service and the atmosphere are more than good enough to build something very good. It seems a pity, in a town once so very idealistic, that they settle for decent when they could easily be so much better.


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