Star Anise is an old-school classic with all the vim and vigour of the newest kid on the block.
A YEAR or two ago, I heard tell of a purported food trend apparently emerging in London, a return to pre-celebrity chef days when the restaurant was the star, the chef merely some anonymous figure hidden away in the kitchen, though I have heard nothing more since.
Once upon a time and quite some time ago, only a troupe of rodents knocking out an especially bawdy cancan on the cheese trolley could have topped the sight of a chef spotted outside the kitchen, for the professional chef was very much a second-class citizen in the hospitality world, to be kept firmly out of sight at all times.
Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for young offenders to be offered a kitchen apprenticeship as an alternative to jail for any number of lesser offences, with the guilty party dispatched to the culinary equivalent of the foreign legion, save a few noble exceptions, the last refuge of the desperate and the damned.
Back then, the restaurateur ruled the roost, some even dictating the entire menu to the chef and also sucking up whatever scant celebrity stardust was in the ether.
Star Anise proprietor Virginie Sarrazin is neither old-school autocrat nor bothered with celebrity but her restaurant is most definitely the star turn.
Though Sarrazin’s chefs are always highly involved team members rather than mere serfs, her stamp remains all over the menu even as chefs move on, a commendable selection of excellent local produce but a sufficiency of imported influences to remind you that Lyon is the place this French daughter of a chef and a professional oenophile first ‘learned local’.
Certain dishes have survived almost unchanged, not through laziness or lack of imagination, but recognition of the relationship between regulars and restaurant built up over 15 years.
Regulars become attached to certain choices and, if done well, their retention is reassuring, particularly in an industry with such a rapidly-decreasing attention span.
Since my last visit, the venue has acquired a bright and tidy makeover, including a mirrored walls to add light and space to the cosy, little room, currently heaving with an exuberant Saturday night crowd.
My starter is Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese Tart with black olive tapenade, tomatoes and mixed leaves.
There are two ways of looking at the ubiquitous goat’s cheese tart, a staple on myriad menus across the country: too often, it moonlights as a de facto and desultory vegetarian offering; alternatively, it can be viewed as a classic of contemporary Irish cuisine, a celebration of a splendid local ingredient.
This is the latter, sweet citric tang of warmed creamy goat’s cheese underpinned by the biscuity bite of a flaky rectangle of mille-feuille, tapenade humming a serene, low-key harmony.
“They’ve been serving this Kaitafi prawn dish in here for years,” says My Heart’s Delight (MHD).
Doesn’t stop her ordering it, mind you. It stands the test of time, fennel, orange salad, and lemon aioli a soaring counterpoint to succulent prawn.
Substitute Irish prawns for imported Tigers and I’d happily eat it for another 15 years to come.
Before my Short Beef Ribs arrive, I am given a ferocious-looking implement, ostensibly, a steak knife but actually more akin to a machete.
It is utterly redundant: impossibly tender meat, glistening under rich, dark jus, is already slinking off the bone ever before I touch it.
Horseradish Mash is comforting with a peppery bite; fine baby carrots and white turnips are perfectly cooked.
I let my reviewer’s cape slide to the floor and dissolve into a puddle of pure off-duty pleasure.
MHD gushes in similar fashion over her Monkfish roast with saffron cream and giddy abandon sees her order a tasting plate of the entire dessert menu.
Proper ‘puddings’, they are all excellent, particularly a silken coffee-flavoured crème brûlée.
Service and wines are, as always, excellent and, despite my intro, chef Carolyn Buckley has to be metaphorically hauled out of the kitchen to take an especially prolonged ovation, for it is the finest cooking I have sampled to date in Star Anise.
All in all, as much fun and pleasure as I’ve had on a night out in long time.
Tues-Saturday: 6pm to 10pm; Private groups 15 plus
€134 (excluding tip)
Tagline: “Star Anise is an old-school classic with all the vim and vigour of the newest kid on the block”
Star Anise, 4, Bridge Street, Cork city;
Tel: 021-4551635; www.staranise.ie
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