Carmel Somers’ new venture houses a welcoming café on the ground floor; upstairs, a cookery school by day hosts the nighttime restaurant.
Sheep’s Head is one of Ireland’s lesser-hymned peninsulas and a selfish part of me would like it to remain so for it is one of my favourite places on earth: lush, green, glorious on the protected Dunmanus Bay side; wind-blasted, rocky, bare, a Bond villain’s lair-in-waiting on the exposed Bantry Bay side.
Carmel Somers returned to Ireland and spent several years running her Good Things Café and Cookery School in Durrus.
Any who made the trek there agreed its renown was justified but the season was short, the locality too sparsely populated to weather the long winter, so, recently, she severed ties and moved to Skibbereen.
The new venture is in a renovated building that curves delightfully with the corner it is named for, housing a welcoming café on the ground floor while, upstairs, a cookery school by day hosts the more formal nighttime restaurant.
The innately stylish Somers’ idiosyncratic décor is as aesthetically pleasing as it is pragmatic: kitchen kit is mounted on walls in artistic displays; random food-related ephemera are framed as much for visual impact as intellectual content.
Newspaper obituaries, a pantheon of epicurean elegies include Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Jane Grigson and George Perry-Smith, all hinting strongly at Somers’ own peripatetic culinary inclinations.
We are the first guests in the bright, white upstairs room where Somers and her youthful team are on view, operating in serene near-silence in an open kitchen.
The Progeny share a mezze plate, including a sweet and sumptuous Caponata, which we raid with the repeat-offender voraciousness of Vikings.
Cold smoked mackerel dishes are hardly unheard of in contemporary Ireland but my version is as good as it gets: sublime flavours and textures of pickled gooseberries, red cabbage, toasted hazelnuts and horseradish dressing contrast without ever competing.
Mrs Driver’s very pretty Carpaccio of Courgettes is better again. Sliced thin as rice paper, it covers the plate, topped with nothing more than fine olive oil, aged Coolea cheese, cherry tomatoes and fresh chilli.
It is a brave chef who will serve such fundamental simplicity to an Irish audience still occasionally prone to volunteering the old chestnut, ‘sure, I could do that myself.’
Indeed, you could, if you track down constituent ingredients of comparable quality and are also possessed of a sufficiently judicious palate to render those same elemental ingredients into such an elevated eating experience, swiftly-assembled raw food with all the taste complexity of a 12-hour tagine.
It bears remembering: often the most precious ‘ingredients’ are an elusive combination of years of accumulated culinary knowledge and preternatural cooking ability.
The Progeny have ‘fish soup’, a prosaic name for piscine perfection, tomato-y bouillebaise brimming with meaty fish pieces.
As the devoutly pescatarian Mrs Driver is once again chauffeur to my Mr Daisy, she feels justified in demanding white wine to partner her lovely pan-fried hake and Nori but I require some heft for my Lamb & Mint Pilaf.
I find it in a Portuguese Crasto Duoro (Gouveio Roupeiro, 2014), green apple with smoky mineral undertow, that works perfectly with the impossibly fine lamb: a Turkish-style cherry hofas (compote) stirred through, tender meat is sweet as molasses, spicing is gently underplayed, normally vibrant mint is vague, wistful, almost tarragon-like, while bulghar wheat soaks up succulent juices.
It is truly gorgeous cooking. It requires no second thoughts to order St Emilion au Chocolat mousse with brandy-soaked macaroon to go.
The Progeny, however, are rapacious when it comes to sugar and ruthlessly dispatch chewy brown sugar meringues, with gooseberry compote and cream.
Somers’ larder, stocked impeccably and almost entirely from her West Cork hinterland, may allude to her rural upbringing in Co Limerick but a reluctance to splurge on butter and cream, preferring good olive oil and Levantine grace notes in general, all point to culinary sensibilities and training refined elsewhere overseas.
The trip from Sheep’s Head to Skibbereen may be Somers’ shortest ‘journey’ to date but she has found the venue to match her cooking and you sense these latest roots will burrow deepest — Good Things do come to those who wait.
The Tab: €147.50 (excluding tip)
Lunch — Tues-Sat, 12pm to 3pm;
Dinner — Thurs-Sat 6pm to 9pm;
Wednesday night — reservation only; Set menu dinner of lobster and roast chicken from 7pm to 9pm.
Atmosphere: 7.5/10 (based on the much quieter early sitting).
In a sentence: “Carmel Somers has finally found the venue to match her truly gorgeous cooking.”
Good Things @ Dillon’s Corner, 68, Bridge Street, Skibbereen.
Tel. 028 51948
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