Mews, Baltimore, Co Cork. (028) 20572, mewsrestaurant.ie
I ate the best fish dish of my life in Mews in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago. The steamed cod that turns out to be a 'signature' is so immaculate that I wonder if I ever had cod cooked properly before. I think not. It's revelatory, almost a religious experience, and I'd jump in the car right now and drive all the way back down to Baltimore (which is about as far as it's possible to drive in Ireland from where I live in Dublin) if I thought that they would have room for me tonight.
On the menu it's 'Cod, Shoregreens, Seaweeds, Mussel Sauce', a description disarming in its simplicity. On the plate, a piece of just-cooked fish defines the word 'translucent', eight different types of seaweed and a pil pil mayonnaise made from the cod's head produce flavours of subtle complexity. The dish is sublime, the standout of my year so far, and God damn me but didn't I forget to take a photo of it.
(Yes, I'm one of those annoying people who takes photos of her food in restaurants. Sorry. In my defence, it's usually as an aide memoire rather than for posting on social media but still... I had lunch in The GreenHouse in Dublin one day when a couple of Japanese tourists did not exchange one word with each other over the course of their meal, but Instagrammed every dish. They barely ate and the joylessness of the whole thing made me sad.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Mews in Baltimore has been on my list for a while, but this is my first visit. The village is heady, basking in the first sunshine of the year and in the throes of a boat-building festival that has brought throngs to the pubs on the harbour. Around the corner, tucked away, is Mews. The original chef, Luke Matthews, has moved on to Overends at Airfield in Dublin; his replacement in Baltimore is Ahmet Dede, whose CV includes stints at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and Chapter One and with Mickael Viljanen at The GreenHouse. It's an appointment that smacks of intent. The owners are Robert Collender and James Ellis; they work front of house.
The room is unexpectedly sophisticated, with exposed stone wall, wishbone chairs, white tablecloths, good art and beautiful light flooding in through a glazed room to the front. It's calm, serene and more than a little cool. In a good way.
The shtick at Mews is that all the ingredients (seasonal, of course, supplemented by a judicious larder of pickles and ferments) used in the kitchen come from West Cork. Sometimes a hyper-local sourcing policy feels painful, a bit try-hard. Sometimes it feels as it's forcing the chef to cut off his or her nose in terms of flavour to stick to it. But at Mews it just feels right; there is no sense of compromise.
Little blobs of whipped monkfish liver and wild fennel sit in a boat of dried kombu, while Sherkin Island oyster with wakame and wood sorrel is the most perfect mouthful of seaside deliciousness. Oyster mushroom with roasted yeast and sycamore is "like taking a lovely walk in a forest", says my dinner companion, while anise-scented sweet cicely and Cape Clear chilli complement brown crab on boxty, and carpaccio of langoustine atop a little buttermilk crumpet with coriander and wasabi remind me of the red prawns crudo that I ate every day - sometimes twice - on holidays in Sicily last summer.
Sourdough bread with Gloun Cross butter is heavenly (yes, we eat it all, every last bit), and asparagus from Lisheen comes shaved, fermented and cooked in its own juices. Next, that extraordinary cod, and then Walsh's slow, tender shoulder of lamb, with carrot, wild garlic and black garlic, and steamed Orla potatoes in a little bowl on the side. It's the most conventional dish that we eat all night - and the only meat - with depth and richness.
Milleens is a dreamy, creamy topping on tayberries, while the Willems family's Coolea Extra Mature is reimagined as a ganache-type filling in a delicate tart made with the most gorgeous, crisp pastry. The flavours are big.
A verdant green granita of dill and wild sorrel comes with elderflower sorbet, pickled elderberries and alexander, and then there is more of the Gloun Cross Milk, this time a few different textures, with gorse honey and pine; it's barely, but only barely, sweet and lovely.
We drink biodynamic Trebbiolo Rosso from La Stoppa - not quite frizzante but with a little residual CO2 - that's youthful, vibrant and earthy, and our bill, with coffee, comes to €185 before service.
I know that it's not fashionable to care about Michelin stars these days, but they do matter - particularly to restaurant owners in out-of-the-way places who rely on tourists for much of their business; currently Mews closes in the winter. This is food that's worthy of recognition, so I hope that the inspectors make it this far south.
In Baltimore, we stayed in the unassuming Casey's, which hides its light under a bushel rather than shouting about the provenance of its food offering - much of which comes from its own organic vegetable garden and local producers, farmers and fishermen. It also has its own microbrewery. The views from the bedrooms at the back are magnificent, and the place has an easy charm about it that's rather lovely. Crucially, it's a 10-minute walk from Mews.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The three-course 'short' menu is priced at €39. You might get Sally Barnes' wild smoked salmon with leek, mustard leaf, pak choi and cape gooseberry, followed by THAT signature cod dish, and the Gloun Cross milk pudding with honey and pine.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The tasting menu we had is €69 per person - after that it's down to the wine. It's a list worth exploring.
THE HIGH POINT
A sophisticated yet relaxed experience in a restaurant that truly merits the tag 'destination'.
THE LOW POINT
Can't think of one.