Review: Smokin' hot - Holy Smoke is going to be a huge hit in Cork
Holy Smoke, Little Hanover Street, Cork. (021) 427-3000
At the bar in Cork's new Holy Smoke restaurant in the Mardyke Entertainment Centre there's an impressive area of bourbon bottles - JD White Rabbit Saloon, Monkey Shoulder and Knob Creek being just a few - that looks as if it could get a person into a lot of trouble. On tap, there's Rebel Red from local brewer Franciscan Well, Punk IPA, Howling Gale from 8 Degrees, and Holy Water. The latter is a brew that I haven't encountered before and I'm tempted to give it a try until barman Colm Lehane fesses up that it is nothing more exciting than plain old water. He's not sure if it's been blessed.
We opt instead for a couple of cocktails. The Bloody Maria is made with Jose Cuervo silver tequila infused with smoked dried chillies, tomato juice, spices and hot sauce. By way of decoration, there's a leafy stick of celery and a crisp slice of streaky bacon. It packs quite a punch, as does the Amaretto Sour, featuring Crested Ten bourbon, amaretto liqueur, lemon juice and egg white - it's grown-up marzipan on wheels and a scene-setter for the meat-fest that is to follow, although Lehane says that the cocktails are designed to work as digestifs, too.
Ah, yes. Meat. The reason we're here. Holy Smoke is all about the meat, although there are vegetarian options. If you were so inclined, you could opt for a Hallelujah Burger featuring grilled halloumi, charred red and yellow peppers, grilled onions and a host of other ingredients, or a Super Food Salad ticking all the quinoa, sweet potato etc boxes. But, really, why would you?
The chef at Holy Smoke is John Relihan, whose CV includes stints in the US, at Fergus Henderson's St John in London and, most relevantly, at Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa in London, which he set up with world-famous pit-master Adam Perry Lang and ran for six years. Having been introduced by food writer and broadcaster Caroline Hennessy, Relihan came back from London to work with Eddie Nicholson, part of the Woodford Bourne family of wine merchants, whose building this is. (I hope that Hennessy will eat at Holy Smoke for free for life because it was an inspired piece of match-making on her part.)
Holy Smoke occupies the ground floor of a former wine warehouse and it's all exposed brick and low, vaulted ceilings with more of those wretched filament-bulb light fittings strung across the ceiling on red-and-black cables. There's a large-scale diagrammatic of an animal identifying all the cuts of beef painted on the wall and some snazzy neon signage. It looks exactly as you would expect a restaurant serving pit-smoked barbecue meat to look; it's dark, the music is loud, instead of napkins there is a roll of kitchen paper on each table, and the cocktails come in jam jars with handles.
Low and slow is the watchword when it comes to authentic barbecue and, without boring the pants off those of you who just want to know whether the food actually tastes any good, what Relihan is doing here is the real deal: brining, preparing his own rubs, smoking his meats for long periods of time in a special smoker that he brought in from the US using premium-quality, chemical-free wood of a variety of different types, basting with butter, and grilling over proper charcoal.
The result is food with deep, complex flavours that's a world away from what's being produced in any number of the pastiche barbecue joints that have sprung up in London and Dublin over the past few years since the trend for low and slow crossed the Atlantic, appearing first at Pitt Cue in London in 2011.
We started with house-made pickles and pork chicharron and crackling to get us in the mood (they did) and progressed on to a no-holds-barred feast of all manner of good things meaty. The short ribs come with an oyster stout glaze that has the consistency of treacle but is not over-sweet, the meat falls off the bone and the fat has all but been rendered away through the cooking process. I suspect that there's bone marrow in the Dirty Swine Burger along with the billed short-rib and chuck - it has that mouthfeel - and the pulled pork that tops it is lush. Naked slaw - apple, kohlrabi and celeriac with a smoked lime and chilli dressing - cuts right across the rich meat and the cornbread is light and very, very good. Butternut squash that's been roasted over charcoal comes with smoked harissa and crushed hazelnuts, while mash with bone marrow gravy is comfort supreme, and creamed spinach with breadcrumbs and fried shallots lusciously rich. The only dud is the skin-on skinny fries - they're too skinny, not hot enough, and flaccid. Unsurprisingly, after all that, we don't manage dessert.
It's the first time in a long while that I've encountered a wine list on which nothing is priced at more than €30, so hip hip hooray for that. We drank a pleasant 100pc tempranillo Mensaje Roble Ribera del Douro (€27) and the bill for two (excluding cocktails but including a coffee) came to €83.60 before service.
Holy Smoke is going to be a huge hit in Cork, no doubt about it.
On a budget
Pulled pork - pork shoulder that's been cooked for 14 hours over oak, hand-pulled, mixed with barbecue sauce and served with naked slaw and cornbread - is €10.
On a blowout
The BBQ Blow Out costs €24.50 per person and includes brisket burnt ends, dry-rubbed baby back ribs, pit-smoked BBQ chicken and pulled pork, plus two sides. Add dessert and a couple of cocktails and you're looking at around €100 for two before service.
The high point
Authentic low and slow cooking with attention to detail.
The low point
The skinny fries weren't up to the standard of the rest of the food.
9/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Restaurant no-shows continue to be a huge problem in the industry and can be financially devastating, particularly for small businesses. There's consumer resistance to giving credit card details when making a booking, although some restaurants do insist when it's a large party. Everyone's arrangements are subject to change, but at least give a restaurant the courtesy of a call to say that you're not going to be able to honour your reservation. And stop booking three tables for the same time so that you can decide on a whim which one you're going to go to. That's just not fair.