Restau­rant re­view

Chap­ters Restau­rant at Schull Har­bour Ho­tel www.schull­har­bourho­tel.ie Tel. 028 28801

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - Joe McNamee

Sev­eral years ago, I stum­bled across a copy of the first Bridge­stone Guide, pub­lished in 1992. Writ­ten by John and Sally McKenna, it com­menced a se­ries of now in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned Ir­ish food guides that, in ret­ro­spect, serve as culi­nary — even so­ci­o­log­i­cal — his­to­ries, doc­u­ment­ing the evo­lu­tion of the Ir­ish food world over sev­eral decades.

There is a chap­ter in the first, en­ti­tled ‘Schull – The Food Town’, prais­ing the West Cork sea­side vil­lage as a bea­con of epi­curean en­light­en­ment (grow­ers, pro­duc­ers, restau­rants, cafes etc) long be­fore the modern Ir­ish food rev­o­lu­tion ever gripped pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion.

I have been haunt­ing West Cork for decades, and when I first be­gan to zone in on Schull those praise­wor­thy el­e­ments still held strong but, sadly, no longer. It is no fail­ing on the part of her cit­i­zenry or vis­i­tors; it is sim­ply the na­ture of things, chang­ing mar­ket forces and Ru­ral Ire­land’s de­cline. The lo­cal pro­ducer/grower scene is still thriv­ing and on the hos­pi­tal­ity front, the bat­tle con­tin­ues: John and Bri­die D’Al­ton have fought hard to en­sure the sur­vival of the iconic New­man’s pub, up­grad­ing and adding a café; the homely charms of Hack­ett’s pub are fur­ther aug­mented by al­ways ex­cel­lent soup; and I have been might­ily im­pressed by a bright new café, Nickie’s Kitchen, crab salad es­pe­cially rec­om­mended. But it has been some time since it was pos­si­ble to head out of an evening in an­tic­i­pa­tion of ex­cep­tional food or any­thing even ap­proach­ing that.

Schull Har­bour Ho­tel was birthed dur­ing the Celtic Tiger and buried in NAMA with­out do­ing any­thing to change this state of af­fairs. When it sub­se­quently reemerged, I vis­ited on a pro­fes­sional as­sign­ment for an­other pub­li­ca­tion. It was quite com­fort­ably one of the worst din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of my life, dis­mal food, chaotic ser­vice, so bad My Heart’s Delight and I could do lit­tle other than laugh. It took the arrival of new head chef Fred De­sormeaux to per­suade us to re­turn. De­sormeaux came to Ire­land in 2001 and like many be­fore him be­came ‘more Ir­ish than the Ir­ish them­selves’, fall­ing in love with place, peo­ple and pro­duce. As a na­tive Bre­ton, he has an es­pe­cial affin­ity with seafood; an im­promptu bar­food lunch is re­warded with ex­cep­tional fish (had­dock in light, crispy bat­ter) and chips. There and then, we make a book­ing for the restau­rant.

Chap­ters Restau­rant has re­ceived a makeover and even if cer­tain ho­moge­nous stylis­tic tics are rem­i­nis­cent of 1980’s yup­pie wine bars, it is un­de­ni­ably warm and wel­com­ing. No 2 Son wields a de­fen­sive fork over his West Cork Crab Can­nel­loni but as MHD and I at­tack on two fronts, it is a los­ing rear­guard ac­tion. ‘Can­nel­loni’ is strips of pick­led cucumber, en­cas­ing sweet fresh crab­meat blended with lime may­on­naise, punchy roast gar­lic aioli along­side. It is ex­quis­ite. Tarte­fine of Sun­blush Tomato Pesto, Wilted Spinach, St. Tola Goats Cheese & Poached Egg with a Lemon Hol­landaise might seem over­crowded but nu­anced flavours are per­fectly poised and com­pli­men­tary, down to the gen­tle chilli nudge in pesto, the en­tirety anointed with golden vis­cous yoke. Flash Grilled Dublin Bay Prawns with a Lemon, Gar­lic & Pars­ley But­ter are an ex­er­cise in el­e­men­tal sim­plic­ity, min­i­mal mess­ing with sub­lime crus­ta­ceous charms. No 2 Son’s medium-rare 10oz Rib­eye Steak with Borde­laise Sauce is French bistro cook­ing with a strong Ir­ish ac­cent. ‘Bour­guignon’ Style Monk­fish is a deeply com­fort­ing affair, the fish’s meati­ness fur­ther em­pha­sised by Gubbeen Smokey Ba­con and a Red Wine Jus. Pan fried Fresh Scal­lops are swollen, lus­cious, bed­ded on creamy risotto con­ceal­ing umami land­mines of smoked duck. For dessert we all opt for fresh rasp­berry Crème Brulée, tart fruit a bright coun­ter­point for vel­vety rich cus­tard. A great meal but there is still some way to go: an up­graded winelist is an im­me­di­ate im­per­a­tive and ser­vice needs to be ad­dressed. (Din­ing in the bar, I’m of­fered a menu by four sep­a­rate servers, after my or­der has been taken! It is the least egre­gious of myr­iad fail­ings.) Restau­rant open­ing hours need to be ex­panded, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the tourist sea­son. But with De­sormeaux’s arrival, a cor­ner has been turned. De­spite his clas­si­cal train­ing and se­ri­ous tech­ni­cal abil­ity, he es­chews foams or fid­dly bits, in­stead serv­ing gen­er­ous, el­e­gant dishes burst­ing with flavour and a ‘sense of place’.

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