Cork: Vegging out at Cafe Paradiso

Café Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork,; tel: 021-4277939

LATER this year Café Paradiso will mark two decades of chopping and dicing, of slicing and sluicing, of braising and blanching, of melting and marinating with aplomb.

Over those 20 years the restaurant has won gong after gong, accolade after accolade, and set a new standard for vegetarianism in Ireland. For once all of those syrupy PR cliches about new gold standards and broader horizons are unquestionably true. That Café Paradiso did all of that while presenting substantial, challenging food and remaining constantly ambitious adds to the achievement.

Guiding light Denis Cotter — who divides his time between Canada and Ireland — has written four cookery books, one of which, Paradiso Seasons, was named Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World in 2004. He was named chef of the year by Food & Wine magazine the next year. Though his books may not have enjoyed the stellar success of Rachel’s, Hugh’s, Jamie’s, Rick’s or Lorraine’s that’s really our loss. And — as a side dish — the confusion of our world is writ large every weekend in the books’ bestseller lists. There are usually two or three, sometimes, as TV schedules decree, four or five, cookery books in the hardback, non-fiction section. Glowering across the lists like a boot camp, fat-fighting sergeant major from the paperback ranks are wretched diet books — Lose Three Stone While Showering, Blancmange to Babe in Three Weeks, Manicure Your Way to Health, or maybe for the more robust, Wobble No More, one more exploitative than the other. Indeed we do live in a strange, unbalanced world.

As another aside, anyone as interested in pushing words around a screen as pushing a teaspoon of pine nut crumb around a plate will really enjoy reading the Paradiso menus. They read like a kind of manifesto expressed through a stumbling, green haiku — almost, if this is possible, onomatopoeic in how the food is described. They deserve to be recounted in their full glory.

My guest, CS, opened with — take a very deep breath — papillote of marinated Toonsbridge buffalo mozzarella, Gortnanain leaves, roasted grapes, pickled fennel, crisp bread, pomegranate syrup and pistachio dukkah. And yes, it was worth all the effort, CS purred with satisfaction.

Mine, the description at least, seemed tame by comparison. A bowl of black bean, chocolate, and chilli soup with avocado salsa, soured cream, and corn gougere was one of those dishes that defied expectations and cheered the heart. Complex, sublime, challenging.

CS’s main course silenced her, an achievement not to be scoffed at. She chose maple glazed lion’s mane mushrooms with sweet potato cakes, spinach, aduki bean wontons, and miso-stout butter. The sliver she shared showed silence was justified. I chose Swiss chard dolma of spiced carrot and chickpea with smoked pepper-almond sauce, orange mint yoghurt — nearly there! — crushed saffron potato cake and broadbeans. CS wasn’t the only one silenced by confounded expectations and wonderful food.

Desserts — fill your lungs — dark chocolate silk cake with espresso ice cream and hazelnut parline for CS and for me a standard transformed. It was described as a cheese board but that would be like calling Callas a singer. Inhale — Crozier blue cheese, apple, Gortnanain honey, glazed pecans, and fennel crisp breads. There was a synergy about it that, just as Callas did with minor divas, made so many alternatives seem pointless. Simplicity made magnificent. We enjoyed a wonderful if indulgent (€42.20) Spanish red — Artadi el Sequé 2009. Café Paradiso has changed its wine pricing policies and list — see the exemplary website — to try to make sense of the vicious circle of tax and margins.

The last time I wrote about a vegetarian restaurant I found it terribly uninspiring but Paradiso is at the other, far end of that spectrum. This was an uplifting meal and a brush with real excellence. I was reminded of an adage and left with a question. A prophet is never recognised in his own land and where are the fat man’s stars?


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