Review: Rachel Allen's new Cork restaurant - 'Ingredients as good as these simply cost more, wherever they are served'
Rachel's, 28 Washington Street, Cork City, Co Cork (021) 427 4189
A flying visit to the real capital provides an opportunity to book in for dinner at rachel's (the lower-case is deliberate) before catching the last train back to Dublin. It's an evening-only operation; we are early for our 5.30pm booking, asking nicely to be allowed in out of the rain for a drink in the Piano Bar before the restaurant is even properly open.
Our cocktails - a classic Negroni del Conte and a Winlet (Plymouth Gin, botanical cordial and black pepper bitters - in the middle of an Irish gin renaissance, we wonder why one of the indigenous iterations is not being used, aware though we are of Plymouth's Protected Geographical Indication status) - mark the end of a busy day.
It's not any time to be eating dinner in a civilised world - this is properly the hour for nursery tea, or for an Early Bird (which rachel's doesn't offer) - so we are prepared to make allowances on the ambience front. As it turns out, the restaurant fills up rapidly. By the time we are heading to Kent station at a quarter to eight, the place is full, buzzing happily, and the early eaters such as ourselves - multi-generational family groups celebrating birthdays and the start of the summer holidays, a few post-work tables of colleagues - are being supplanted by couples out for the night. They dress up for dinner in Cork, I can report.
The rachel of rachel's is, of course, Rachel Allen of Ballymaloe. The restaurant is owned by businessman Paul Montgomery and run by Ms Allen, who has been very involved in the setting up of the menu and décor, which features some lovely botanical art pieces by Sharon Greene of Queens of Neon. One should not necessarily go along in the expectation of seeing Rachel behind the stove. (Rachel's husband Isaac later tells me she's "there every day" when she's not filming in the UK). The head chef is Anne Zagar, who trained at Ballymaloe; she is not in the kitchen on the day of our visit. First things first, it's a big restaurant with a lot of tables to fill. The prime spots are on the upper level by the window, so we're happy to find ourselves steered in this direction. The tables near the open kitchen, with its serious wood-burning oven, get pretty warm.
By way of welcome, there's a little bowl of pretty green-topped pink radishes - pulled from the ground at the organic farm at Ballymaloe Cookery School that very morning, we are told - with an anchovy mayonnaise in which to dip them. They are pleasantly pungent and peppery, without being overly so. That radish crunch is the essence of early summer and it's a delightful way to begin. From the day's specials, we choose a wild salmon starter - a substantial tranche served with a buttery sauce with tomato, basil and tarragon. The fish is marginally overcooked but its flavour is superb. Two artichokes - our first of the year - are simply steamed and served with hollandaise. It's a simple dish, and simply lovely.
Dover sole, a fine plump fish, is served off the bone. It's a beautiful golden colour and topped with a dressing of herbs and lemon. Again, the fish has been cooked a little too long, it's gone beyond that moment where translucence tips over into opacity and the flesh starts to toughen and dry out, but the flavour is good.
'Locally-reared farmyard duck' - what a great description - is served with a purée of carrot, flavoured with anise, sprouting broccoli, baby carrots and red wine salsify; there are two fine pieces of flavoursome breast and it's a dish that's rustic in its conception yet executed with finesse. Alongside, there are potatoes dressed in butter and mint, a squeaky-fresh garden salad and another dish of tender sprouting broccoli and more little carrots. Yes these may possibly be glazed with more butter - this is Ballymaloe territory after all - and what harm in that? The vegetables are glorious, properly garden-tasty.
Dark chocolate tart served with peanut brittle and vanilla ice-cream is exemplary, while rhubarb mille-feuille disappoints. The pastry is crunchy rather than flaky, the crème pâtissière dull, the rhubarb underwhelming. Pistachio ice-cream is good though.
The staff are young and enthusiastic. The sommelier wears his knowledge lightly. In Garrison Keillor's Cat You Better Come Home (the best children's book of all time, IMHO) there's a salutary warning to greedy cats tempted to go off the rails food-wise (the protagonist feasts on chateaubriand and foie gras, to the detriment of his health and figure): "a cat should never drink moscatel". That's as may be for our feline friends, but I can attest that a glass of Lustau moscatel goes very well thank you with chocolate and peanut brittle.
The bill for two comes to €190 before service, including a bottle of dry Huesgen Schiefer riesling (€55) with complex fruit aromas and fine minerality from the Mosel Valley. There are mutterings in the Twittersphere and elsewhere (read: my taxi driver) that the prices are high for Cork. That's as may be, but ingredients as good as these simply cost more, wherever they are served. And the portions in Cork are far bigger than we are used to seeing in Dublin. Cheap food does none of us any favours. I liked rachel's and wish it well.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The wood-fired pizza of the day costs €20.
ON A BLOW OUT
The bill can mount up at rachel's. A starter of poached lobster tail with citrus beurre blanc, chilli jam and garden salad, followed by Dover sole (the wood-fired fish of the day when we visited) and chocolate tart would cost €110 for two before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The menu sings of provenance in a way that feels natural rather than forced - wouldn't it be great if more Irish menus read like this?
THE LOW POINT
Fish that was fractionally overcooked.