The review: Sage - complex dishes that showcase a formidable talent
Sage, The Courtyard, 8 Main Street, Midleton, Co Cork
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
It's the weekend of Litfest and an opportunity to visit a restaurant that's been on my list for a while. The ripple effect of what Myrtle Allen began when she started offering meals in her home on the farm at Ballymaloe back in 1964 is felt throughout the area; it's not an exaggeration to say that it is embedded in its culture, and a source of local pride. Nowhere is this more evident than at Kevin and Reidin Aherne's restaurant, Sage, in Midleton.
Litfest is, to employ an over-used phrase, a celebration of all that is best about Irish food, and of the strides that have been made towards developing a modern Irish food sensibility. It's always heartening to sit in a demonstration or talk by some luminary of the international food firmament and listen to him or her rhapsodise about Irish ingredients. And there is probably nowhere in the country that has a better larder than Ballymaloe's, with its organic farm and gardens and access to the very best produce that the area has to offer. But Litfest is a bubble, and there are still plenty of towns in Ireland where it is impossible to buy anything other than battery chickens and intensively-reared industrial pork, and where the possibilities of developing a true Irish food culture are squandered on a daily basis. At Sage, though, you'll find a restaurant that embodies the true ethos of Mrs Allen, for which her daughter-in-law, Darina Allen, is now proselytiser in chief.
Kevin Aherne calls it '12 Mile', and at its core is the promise that his kitchen will source almost all of its ingredients from within a 12-mile radius of the restaurant. We are all used to seeing the 'local and seasonal' tag on restaurant menus; it's become a cliché that's trotted out by every restaurant in the country that orders in its produce from one of the big restaurant suppliers that pulls up outside in a big truck. (And the other thing that no one ever seems to say is that just because food is local doesn't mean that it is any good. Even the bad food, the food that we really don't want to be eating and don't want our restaurants to be using - all those battery chickens and pigs reared in cages in which they can't turn around - comes from somewhere.)
But at Sage, they talk the talk and walk the walk. There's a framed list of the producers who supply the restaurant on every table, and one wall is dedicated to photos of them. They're a friendly-looking bunch, these people who supply the fish and the chickens, the honey and the vegetables.
The room is smart and modern and full to capacity. Despite the fact that Litfest is kicking off down the road, and we'd expected Sage to be busy with food-world types, the clientèle appears to be 100pc local - women having dinner together at the end of a long week, couples, family groups. It's clear that most are regulars.
There's a short menu with just two choices for each course, and so we get to try everything. First, there's fermented potato bread, made with Jersey milk culture, that's charred on the barbecue, served alongside a vibrant green pool of organic rapeseed oil and pea shoots. The bread has a gorgeous tang and the dip is delicious. There's a little pre-starter of pickled white turnip and beetroot with Ardsallagh goat's cheese and micro herbs, with a wild garlic flower on top that's a mouthful of perfect balance, and the only pity is that it's followed by a starter that also features beetroot and cheese. On a menu that's as short as this one, no ingredient should make more than one appearance, but that's a minor gripe.
In the starter, the spiralised white and gold beetroot is cooked sous-vide and served with more Ardsallagh goat's cheese, this time smoked by the legendary Frank Hederman in Belvelly. The second starter is black celeriac, cooked sous-vide with butter and a powder of dehydrated mushrooms, then charred and pan-fried, served with cabbage that's been fermented with thyme, egg yolks smoked with hay and a lovage emulsion. These are complex, multi-process dishes that belie the simplicity of how they are described on the menu and showcase a formidable talent and delicate touch.
The fish options are John Dory with shimeji mushrooms from Ballyhoura, sea spaghetti and beach mustard, and stunningly good monkfish that's crisp and golden, having been pan-fried and brushed with bacon fat, and served with king oyster mushroom, rock samphire emulsion and pickled rock samphire.
Main courses are duck breast cooked sous-vide and then pan-fried served with swede batons deep-fried in beef dripping, served with fermented parsnip, and chard. It feels too much like a winter dish for this time of year, even though it's perfectly executed (the seasons can be a b****). New season lamb, with crisp sweetbread, sea kale, and brown butter-roasted celeriac, wins out.
To finish, a dessert described as 'chocolate, salt, honey' - 65pc bean to bar organic chocolate tart with honeycomb and sea salt from local chocolate maker, Shane Wilkie - that is beyond good, and 'strawberry, labneh, pine' that's as pretty as a picture but a tad too sweet. The cheese on offer is the mild local Bo Rua cheddar from Tom & Mary Dineen in Ballynoe. With two bottles of Sciriani Ripasso (€38), water and coffees, the bill for three came to €226 before service.
We liked Sage, its friendly ambience and food of integrity, very much.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Sage serves lunch from Thursday to Sunday and the ‘short lunch’ option is priced at €20. For that you will get some of that great fermented
potato bread, a 12-mile taster plate, a choice of three mains and a dessert. The Greenroom Café in the courtyard offers a more casual menu.
ON A BLOW OUT
The five-course dinner menu is €45. After that it’s down to your choice of wine.
THE HIGH POINT
Ambitious, thoughtful food with integrity served in a stylish setting in a small country town.
THE LOW POINT
The bucketing rain meant no pre-dinner drinks outside.
Whispers from the gastronomicon
At the time of writing, Canteen Celbridge was just about to open its doors on Main Street. Fans of the original Canteen, when it was located in Blackrock Market, were devastated when James Sheridan and Soizic Humbert shut-up shop towards the end of last year, but things have a way of working out and the locals are delighted with the new occupant of the space, Heron & Grey. Now it’s the turn of Celbridge residents to get a taste of Sheridan’s cooking, and they are in for a treat. Like their Facebook page, Canteen Celbridge, for updates.