Restaurant review: Elbow Lane - 'What's not to like about melted cheese and warm bread?'
ELBOW LANE, 4 Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork.
The Beast from the East is bearing down hard on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork city centre, but the woman in the chef's uniform is having none of our pleas to be allowed to stand in from the cold in the little lobby area. "Health and safety," she says, and that's it. Elbow Lane doesn't open until 5pm - 15 minutes from now - and we're not getting in a moment sooner.
As it happens, I recognise her because a few days beforehand I had been writing about a pop-up that she was putting on with some of her fellow chefs in the Market Lane group in Elbow Lane's sister restaurant, Orso, and the PR had sent me a photo to accompany the piece. She's 23-year-old Aisling Moore, and she's the sous chef at Elbow Lane. She turns out to be the one cooking our dinner when we do make it inside out of the cold.
We had been planning a leisurely 8pm dinner at another restaurant in the city, but a decision to get the last train back to Dublin rather than risk being stranded when the storm hit saw us cancelling that reservation and opting instead for the no-booking Elbow Lane. Dinner at five is not something that would generally feature on the agenda (particularly after an epically good lunch at Miyazaki - thanks, Takashi!) but needs must.
As it happens, Elbow Lane is dark and cosy and once we're inside, and have ordered some food and wine, it could be any time at all. One of my guests lives in the city and says that she's never eaten here before because getting a table is so tough; Elbow Lane is a popular spot. It fills up quickly.
A quick look at the menu explains why: the three-course set menu costs €26 and reads well. Restaurateurs say that the market in Cork is very price-sensitive - Rachel's got a lot of flak for its frothy pricing when it opened last year. The a la carte at Elbow Lane is also priced considerably lower than it would be in an equivalent restaurant in Dublin.
We share a couple of starters. The first is roast Wicklow blue - a cambozola-style creamy farmhouse cheese made by the Hempenstall family near Arklow - with 'lambic-soaked' pomegranate and crusty bread. (Lambic turns out to be a funky beer made using wild yeasts and active bacteria that has been described as the oldest and weirdest style of beer in the western world, but none of us can discern much from it in the way of the flavour.) No matter, what's not to like about melted cheese and warm bread and the pop of pomegranate seeds in the mouth?
The brisket roll is a torpedo of slow-cooked brisket that's dipped in breadcrumbs and deep-fried; it's accompanied by a Malaysian rojak sauce that's sweet and savoury at the same time. The consistency of the brisket is mushy but the flavours are good.
Aisling Moore is cooking over the wood-fired grill that's propelling seductive aromas through the room and is something for which Elbow Lane is known.
The fish of the day - lemon sole - turns out to be disappointing as the fish is too small and bony for the cooking method and we end up with mouthfuls of bones and not much else. A meatier fish would have been better; or the fish should have been cooked on the bone and served off.
Slow-smoked baby back ribs are excellent though, with plenty of meat on them and a generous amount of richly savoury sauce; a half-portion is easily enough as a main course.
The winner, though, is a superb T-bone steak cooked medium rare that's got all the Maillard reaction char and flavour that you could ask for, and more from a liberal dousing with a smoked cascade butter.
We can take or leave the chips, which are dusted with Elbow Lane's in-house spicing (we'd have preferred them plain), but the roast cauliflower with fried garlic in a tahini and yogurt dressing is satisfying and delicious. The smoked king oyster mushrooms in panko crumb could have been smokier, but the contrasting textures are good and the accents of chorizo and smoked garlic emulsion pack plenty of flavour.
Desserts are enormous. A huge log of lapsang souchong and honey parfait is decorated with treacle crumb, malt custard and an angel stout caramel so delectable that Elbow Lane should sell it by the jar, while two massive quenelles of milk chocolate mousse come with sable breton, dulce de leche ganache and a malt crumb. Anyone who thinks that the starter and main course are things to be got through, and that the whole point of a meal is the sweet stuff at the end, will be very happy at Elbow Lane.
Really, we should have been drinking beer, as Elbow Lane has its own nano-brewery upstairs (hence all the nods to its various beers on the menu), and aficionados are enthusiastic, but none of us is willing to take one for the team.
Instead, we go for La Petite Source, a vermentino-chardonnay blend that over-delivers for a wine costing €29.50 (the list is reasonably priced, with a decent selection available by the glass and pichet) and Finca el Paso, a Spanish garnacha costing €9.30 per pichet.
Our bill for three, including one bottle of white and two pichets of red, comes to €136.65.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The three-course set menu costs €26. That might include the roast Wicklow blue as a starter, followed by whole grilled fish of the day and that chocolate mousse to finish.
ON A BLOW OUT
The intriguing-sounding monkfish pastrami with rye porridge and yellow mustard hollandaise, followed by T-bone steak with a couple of sides and pudding will cost around €85 for two before drinks and service.
THE HIGH POINT
Great friendly service and some seriously tasty food.
THE LOW POINT
Having to wait outside in the cold.