Cork: The Comeback Kid - 23 amazing eats in the Rebel City
Cork city's food scene has got its mojo back, says Aoife Carrigy. Now's the time to pack an appetite...
Being a Jackeen, I don't immediately appreciate the poetry of my nightcap in Cork's hottest new cocktail bar.
I'm in town for a collaboration between one of Galway's most creative chefs, JP McMahon of Aniar, and one of Cork's, Bryan McCarthy of Greenes Restaurant; and we're finishing the night in the newly-opened Cask.
Mine's a Katty Barry: an elegant but earthy coupe of gorse-infused Bombay, woodruff, Irish pears and Prosecco. As I later learn, it's named after a local hospitality legend immortalised in song for selling crubeens (pig trotters) "fairly bursting at the seams".
How better to end a memorable meal that celebrated the locality through dishes like Irish halibut and Ballyhoura mushrooms with foraged sea radish and pepper dulse?
Cork may be the nation's second city, but it boasts our island's richest food heritage. Just look at the quality of its markets, from the historic English Market (englishmarket.ie), where locals stock up on offal, olives and everything in between, to the unique food purveyors and producers at farmers' markets like Mahon Point (mahonpointfarmersmarket.com). The Leeside city's bountiful hinterland gave us our first artisan food producers, with pioneering farmhouse cheesemakers leading the way for craft smokers, charcuterie makers and real bread bakers.
For decades, in fact, it was Cork's chefs and restaurants that pushed boundaries in Irish food. Myrtle Allen redefined Irish country house cooking at Ballymaloe House (ballymaloe.ie); baker Declan Ryan (arbutusbread.com) secured one of Ireland's first Michelin stars at Arbutus Lodge; Seamus O'Connell of The Ivory Tower (ivorytower.ie) introduced fusion flavours in the 1990s; and Denis Cotter of Paradiso (paradiso.restaurant) proved that menus don't need to revolve around meat - plant-based cooking can produce top-class dishes too.
For years, the rest of the country scrambled to catch up with these trailblazers. But then, things seemed to quiet down in by the River Lee. Compared to Galway's giddy buzz and Dublin's generous range, it lagged and lost grip on its claim to the 'food capital of Ireland' title. But lately it seems a new energy is stirring, so I've come to nosy around and ask if Cork is on a culinary comeback.
Recession hit the city hard, says food blogger Billy Lyons (corkbilly.com), one of my dining companions at Greenes. "For a while there were new places opening but places closing again as quickly," he tells me. But there was never a shortage of interesting spots in which to eat, he adds, and a 30-something couple at our table agree - though I'm struck by how many of their favourite haunts lie beyond the city centre: 12 Tables in Douglas (12tables.ie), Bastion in Kinsale (bastionkinsale.com) and Sage in Midleton (sagerestaurant.ie), for example.
Cork's city centre is evolving, says Beverley Matthews of l'Atitude 51 wine bar (latitude51.ie), where I earlier sampled a bowl of Hederman smoked mussels with a glass of manzanilla sherry. "Maybe it's people coming back from abroad who have tasted exciting things and want to bring a little bit of that home," she conjectures, citing the buzz created by "really good and very different types of eateries" like Miyazaki (twitter.com/miyazakicork), Iyer's (facebook.com/iyerscafe) and Ali's Kitchen (aliskitchencork.com). Recession seems finally to be loosening its grip, too.
"Cork is changing," agrees Rebecca Harte of Farmgate Café (farmgate.ie) in Cork's English Market - a guardian of the city's food traditions if there ever was one. "There is significant inward investment and a new lightness and energy to the city. It's palpable."
It certainly seems that way. The opening of Cask on MacCurtain Street is just part of a major public and private investment in the streetscape, hotels and hospitality offers of Cork's Victorian Quarter. And it's not the only area starting to buzz. Over on Washington Street, the recent opening of Rachel's (rachels.ie) by Rachel Allen is one of several new arrivals to the 'hood.
"I just hope we retain its heart and soul as we move forward," adds Harte. Judging from my visit, they're doing just that - bringing a typically independent twist to international trends and grounding a taste for exotic flavours in a deep-rooted loyalty to local produce. Dublin and Galway had better watch out: Cork has got its mojo back - and it's coming after that food capital crown.
Local produce, international palate
Corkonians have never been shy of earthy flavours and nose-to-tail cooking. The English Market's treasured Farmgate Café (farmgate.ie) is the place to sample tripe and drisheen (a unique local beef and sheep's blood sausage), while I spot roast bone marrow and lambs' kidneys on several menus including Crawford Café (crawfordgallerycafe.com). My vegetarian waitress at House Café (corkoperahouse.ie) encourages me to order deep-flavoured fritters of fresh blood black pudding from McCarthy's of Kanturk, and they make a fine lunch.
Of course the city also boasts some of the best vegetarian food in the land, from the sure-handed sophistication of Paradiso (paradiso.restaurant) to the hearty wholefoods of Quay Co-Op (quaycoop.com) and the bright salads and pickles at The Rocketman Food Co (therocketman.ie).
Don't be surprised to find a taste for exotic flavours in this centuries-old trading hub, from which salted butter and beef were shipped around the world, and salt and spices shipped in for use in traditional specialties like Cork's famed spiced beef. Today, spice fiends flock to the family-run Iyer's (facebook.com/iyerscafe) for cheap-as-chips southern Indian treats like masala dosa (a fermented rice-flour pancake) or to neighbouring Thali (thalinepal.com) for a Nepalese alternative.
One of contemporary Cork's most exciting chefs, Takashi Miyazaki (above) is building a sizeable reputation for his tiny six-seater ramen bar and takeaway on Evergreen Street (instagram.com/miyazaki_cork). Diners think nothing of queuing for an hour to eat his nuanced Japanese creations, while his regular pop-up collaborations in intriguing settings (the Mitchelstown Caves, for example, or Dublin's Fumbally Stables) are piquing national interest in Cork's newfound pep.
An appetite for culture
Cork's thriving cultural scene has long fostered some of its best food offerings. Thirty years young, the Crawford Gallery Café (crawfordgallerycafe.com) remains one of the best lunch spots in the city, even with stiff competition from the nearby House Café in Cork Opera House (corkoperahouse.ie). Meanwhile, arts and exhibition centres like Triskel Christchurch and St Peter's are hot-housing indie cafés like Gulpd (facebook.com/gulpdcafe) and Portafilter (stpeterscork.ie/filter-cafe).
The Farmgate Café hosts regular cultural gatherings, talks and workshops, often in collaboration with UCC scholars and writers, and their 'poetry wall' was joined last year by a striking photographic installation of radical and revolutionary Women of the South.
In another feat of creative programming, The Montenotte Hotel (themontenottehotel.com) has been opening its in-house Cameo cinema to non-residential guests with a movie-and-meal special offer. And l'Atitude 51's (latitude51.ie) lively calendar of wine-focused events includes movie nights where guests enjoy food and wine inspired by films as diverse as Jiro Dreams of Sushi or Natural Resistance.
Several new food and drink-focused festivals have sprung up too, including ones dedicated to burgers in January, whiskey in April and dessert in June (festivalcork.com).
From baristas to brewhouses, smoking to small plates, Cork has a typically independent take on international trends. For every Umi or Bunsen that opens in the city, as Dublin-based operators recognise the upswing in Cork, there's a locally owned EAST falafel hatch (facebook.com/east bytherocketman) or Son of a Bun (sonofabun.ie) burger joint.
Cork adapted fast to the slow 'n' low pit-smoked barbecue trend, with Bad Boys BBQ (badboysbbq.ie) and White Rabbit Bar & BBQ (whiterabbit.ie) of MacCurtain Street hot on the heels of John Relihan, pit master at Holy Smoke (mardyke.com/holy-smoke) and former head chef at Jamie Oliver's Barbacoa.
At the clubby Elbow Lane Brew & Smoke House (elbowlane.ie), I wash down a sublime house-smoked monkfish pastrami with rye porridge with their own Herkules-hopped Angel Stout brewed at an in-house nanobrewery.
Small plates are big news in Cork, especially when paired with well-considered drinks. Jacques (jacquesrestaurant.ie) is rejuvenating a long-standing business with an Irish gin menu and tapas with a local twist. Chef Bryan McCarthy of Greenes brings a fine-dining sensibility to small plates at sister establishment Cask (caskcork.com, above): think salt cod brandade with pickled dillisk and scurvy grass served with farm-to-glass cocktails from award-winning bartender Andy Ferreira.
Coffee lovers can fuel up on brews from local roasters Rebel City Roast at Cork Coffee Roasters (facebook.com/Cork Coffee) and The Golden Bean at The Rocketman (therocketman.ie) or two Filter outlets (twitter.com/filtercork) where a menu of various roasters, origins and brewing styles is despatched with pure Cork charm.
Elsewhere, Ali's Kitchen bakehouse (aliskitchencork.com) pairs Cloud Picker coffee with superlative doughnuts (caramel custard and praline, anyone?) while Oh My Donut! (facebook.com/OhMyDonutCork) is injecting a dash of candied colour to an up-and-coming Washington Street.
Where to stay
Diners at the celebrated Paradiso restaurant can stay in an ensuite guest bedroom upstairs, where a breakfast of baked pastries and breads, farmhouse cheeses, granola and fresh fruit is delivered to your room. See: paradiso.restaurant
Hotel Isaacs Cork
Enjoy a discounted meal at Greenes Restaurant and a nightcap at neighbouring Cask before retiring to a recently modernised room in this sister hotel, knowing that breakfast will be as well-sourced as dinner.See: hotelisaacscork.com
The Montenotte Hotel
This recently refurbished four-star hotel is a good base to explore Cork’s rebranded Victorian Quarter — keep an eye out for good deals on rooms as well as movie-and-dinner offers. See: themontenottehotel.com.