Review - Ocean Wild: 'The town finally has an excellent seafood restaurant'
Ocean Wild, West End, Castletownbere, Co Cork. (027) 71544
It's one of those late summer days in West Cork that I remember from my childhood, except that this time I'm sitting in the front rather than the back seat. We've driven the Ring of Beara in drizzle, the hedgerows toppling with montbretia more lushly vigorous than you see in any other part of the country. The German bikers have stopped for coffee and meaty sandwiches in Eyeries, serious road machines parked up outside the café.
The beach at Allihies is deserted, too chilly for even the most determined of staycationers. The teenager in the back seat doesn't see any of this; her headphones are on and she's enduring rather than enjoying the drive, oblivious to scenery that is glorious even in the rain. She cheers up at the café at the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist retreat centre, where there's good soup and a slice of carrot cake that is almost too much, even when shared between three of us. The views out to sea from the terrace are magnificent.
Castletownbere has long punched under its weight when it comes to tourism, which is part of its charm for those who know and love it. But there are signs that things are improving. Dunboy Castle - originally the fortress of the O'Sullivan Beres and later known as Puxley Manor (the Puxleys were the family on which the Daphne du Maurier novel Hungry Hill is based), which was supposed to be Ireland's first six-star hotel, but was abandoned mid-construction - may never be finished. But the old Cametringane Hotel, where I first stole the froth off my father's pints, has been rescued by hoteliers Mark Golden and Mark Johnston, and is now looking rather dapper. Sarah Walker's lovely gallery on the water in the town goes from strength to strength, there are good food and sandwiches on Arbutus bread to be found in Taste, just up from The Square, and MacCarthy's Bar still serves the essential Castletownbere pint.
And now Castletownbere has an excellent seafood restaurant, something that it's been waiting for for too long, given that it's the most important fishing port in the country. The sisters behind Ocean Wild, which opened earlier this year, are Mairead O'Driscoll and Eileen Quill, both Castletownbere locals. Mairead is in the kitchen, while Eileen looks after a team of young staff front of house. The sisters are well-got in fishing circles, which explains the quality of the fish and seafood on offer - they have access to the freshest of the fresh.
Located at the west end of the town, in what was formerly the Olde Bakery, Ocean Wild is smart and modern, with a wine bar on one side and a restaurant on the other. It's early in the evening, but the restaurant is already half-full when we arrive and there isn't an empty seat by the time that we leave. There's a short menu, with just six starters and seven main courses, of which four are seafood, with steak, chicken and a Thai vegetarian curry for non-fish-eaters.
First off, there are cute and delicious little individual loaves of brown bread with Glenilen Farm butter. We share the three seafood starters. Scallops from Castletownbere Harbour are seared perfectly and served with 'forbidden rice' and a sweet and sour chilli jus. Forbidden rice turns out to be black rice, once the exclusive preserve of the emperors of China, who must have known that it was full of anti-oxidants and had anti-inflammatory properties.
Whatever about it being a health food, it tastes wonderful and this is a beautifully-balanced dish, elegantly presented. The crab cakes are on the stingy side - though they taste good - just three tiny mouthfuls topped with lemon aioli; in contrast a plate of fresh prawns from Porcupine Bank (about 120 miles off the Irish coast on the fringes of the Atlantic) and crab toes with Marie-Rose sauce is simple and generous.
The prawns are Nephrops norvegicus - Norwegian lobster or, more familiarly, Dublin Bay prawns - one of the most valuable crops for Irish fishing boats. We order them pil pil style with garlic, chilli and parsley as two of our three main courses. This is a dish without pretension, executed deftly, with quiet confidence in the excellence of the main ingredient. The hand-cut fries that come with it are pretty good too. Pan-roasted hake, with fennel, pickled grapes and a red pepper relish, pales in comparison, but it's a fine piece of fish nonetheless, served with crisp little roast potatoes. We finish with an excellent crème brulee, served - crucially - in the proper wide and shallow dish that ensures maximum crunchy topping.
It's not often that a restaurant bill comes in significantly under what I am expecting it to be, but at Ocean Wild I've somehow missed the fact that there is an early-bird deal for which we qualify. Dinner for three, priced at €25 for two courses and €29.99 for three, with a bottle of decent Albarinho that we don't finish but take away (thank you screw cap), sparkling water and a soft drink, comes to €115.79 before service.
I consider that a bargain.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
You can't argue with an early-bird deal that allows you to eat two courses of fresh prawns for €25pp.
ON A BLOW OUT
Outside the hours during which the early bird applies, dinner for two - scallops, prawns pil pil and Milleens cheese - would cost €92 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Castletownbere has finally got the seafood restaurant that it's been waiting for.
THE LOW POINT
That the weather wasn't good enough to allow us to sit outside.