Surprises in store
My partner Marian The Blonde's son Max has come with me on a few res-taurant reviews. Being a chef, he makes for a knowledgeable dining companion.
Right now, he's doing what many cooks in Ireland would love to do – the three-month live-in cookery course in Ballymaloe.
With his half-term coming up, it seemed like a good time for a visit. The final head count for the visit ended up as older brother Alex, younger sister Sophie, mother Marian and me. With Alex doing the driving, we headed off to Shanagarry in Co Cork.
We had arranged to stay in Ballymaloe House, which is just a couple of miles from the cookery school. After checking in and leaving off our bags, we were off to the cookery school to meet Max.
It's a fabulous place, and Max gave us a tour of the vegetable gardens, the dairy where they make cheese, the poultry runs where their daily fresh eggs come from, and, lastly, the orchard where we found some fine windfalls.
Inside, we toured the demo kitchens where most of this intensive course takes place.
By the end of the tour, I have to admit I was feeling peckish. "Time for supper," I announced, and so, with five of us packed into Alex's car, we set off for Cork and The Cornstore restaurant.
I've had great reports of The Cornstore and I was keen to try it. And with five of us dining, we'd be able to get a good sample of the dishes on the menu.
The Cornstore is on Cornmarket Street, and you won't be surprised to hear that it used to be a corn store. It has a fine cut-stone facade and the interior is large and spacious. It's both a very busy cocktail bar and a restaurant, a combination that is designed to appeal to the younger market.
As I took this in, mentally I took a guess that we'd be presented with a dull menu.
We took our table and discovered that the menus were wrapped around our napkins. When opened out, they became large sheets with quite a large selection of dishes. As well as that, we had a set menu and another of the day's specials. You could say we were spoilt for choice.
The day's specials were three starters and two main courses – mussels with a cream and black-pudding sauce, pan-seared scallops with a wild-mushroom risotto, and a terrine of foie gras for starters, then pan-seared turbot and onglet as the main courses.
The main menu opens out to an A3 size and is divided into dishes to start, to share, from the grill, mains, fish and side dishes. I was happy to see that there were plenty of interesting-looking dishes.
Here's a sample: a salad with Irish buffalo mozzarella from Toonsbridge, their homemade treacle-cured salmon, roast monkfish with orange-scented sweet potatoes and an orange salad with a citrus and saffron reduction, and a brown bread and wild-mushroom dumpling with a poached egg, asparagus and a garlic cream sauce. All the steaks are aged for a minimum of 28 days.
Just as I'd hoped, we ordered across the menu and tucked into the breads and three dips that were on the table. The dips were a black -olive tapenade, a red pepper and sun-dried tomato dip, and an olive oil one.
The first two were good, but I was surprised by the last one. Normally, when I'm presented with olive oil in restaurants, it's a nondescript, run-of-the-mill oil. Here, we had a truly tasty oil, very fresh and way better than what's usually served. A good start, I noted to myself.
Three of us had starters: a warm goat's cheese crostino for Sophie, the foie gras terrine for Alex, and the mussels with cream, whiskey and black pudding for me.
I've noticed recently that black pudding is starting to turn up in combinations where previously it never was. Seems as though chefs have just discovered how versatile black pudding is. Personally, I'd rather see that than the increasingly prevalent beetroot.
All the starters were well done, so I was looking forward to the main courses. Between us, we'd ordered a fillet steak for Marian with Bearnaise sauce, a striploin steak for Max with horseradish mash, pan-seared turbot with a crab and scallion mash for Alex, the marinated chicken breast with a wild mushroom tart for Sophie, and the onglet for me.
The only comments from the Kenny family were entirely positive, and I had to agree. My onglet, a cut of meat I'd had before in Bear in Dublin, is a cut that needs long and slow cooking if it's not to be tough and I found it both tender and very tasty.
The fillet and the rib-eye eaters had well-aged and tender steaks, while Sophie enjoyed her chicken.
We ended up with just two desserts between us, the flourless chocolate cake with fresh cream, and the pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and an espresso Martini shot. And, just like our other courses, they were well made and good.
This turned out to be a meal that took me by surprise. I had arrived expecting competent, but not scintillating, food. And the surroundings, which are pleasing, don't really set you up to expect good food that's clever and inventive, as well as being properly cooked.
Even the presentation of dishes is of a high level. So all of that coupled with really excellent service means that we left The Cornstore contented and happy punters.
The only let-down of the evening was right at the end, when I ordered my usual espresso. As a drink it wasn't any worse than most of the espressos I'm served, but getting it delivered in what could have been a breakfast cup was more than a little off-putting.
Despite that, I was impressed with The Cornstore's offering and I'd be happy to return. The bill for the five of us came to €195.30.