Restau­rant re­view

Café Paradiso, 16 Lan­caster Quay, Cork. Tel: 021-4277939; www.paradiso.restau­rant

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - Joe McNamee

Though JB and I dropped out of col­lege to be­come pop­stars and JB still strides the oc­ca­sional stage, decades later, our pri­mary shared sta­tus is that of house­bound, child-herd­ing Soc­cerMoms. Any ac­tual paid work is car­ried out on a part time ba­sis at kitchen ta­bles, so tonight is our ‘Of­fice Christ­mas Party’. While I am a ‘re­cov­er­ing’ veg­e­tar­ian, JB has never lost a faith first found at 15, so Café Paradiso is an ob­vi­ous choice. In the tow of our re­spec­tive spouses/CFOs, My Heart’s De­light, and V, we en­counter a restau­rant aglow with fes­tive cheer.

Hav­ing agreed, for re­view­ing pur­poses, to each or­der dif­fer­ent dishes, the ladies then blithely re­nege, daz­zled by a veg­etable sushi and tem­pura combo. True, deep­fried veg­eta­bles in light, crisp bat­ter are crim­i­nally ad­dic­tive; cau­li­flower, pos­si­bly blanched be­fore fry­ing, bears an ex­quis­ite bras­sica bari­tone. The sushi is ex­pertly ren­dered though I miss that ex­tra depth of flavour that comes from fresh fish.

My de­li­cious Cáis na Tíre and ri­cotta tortellini are fresh pasta parcels hous­ing the salty-sweet ‘fudge’ of one of my favourite cheeses. Served with ap­ple brown but­ter, a silken cele­riac puree and rib­bons of sprout tops, smoked pecans add fur­ther con­trast.

JB’s salad of Chicory, beet­root, or­ange and Crozier Blue cheese is a vis­ual treat, equally pleas­ing on the palate: winc­ingly bit­ter chicory, off­set by sweet umami hum from gor­geous cheese; cit­ric or­ange, earthy beet­root lilt sweet har­monies, echoed by mint and pome­gran­ate. It takes a ground­ing al­lium al­liance of hefty ajo blanco and shal­lot dress­ing to en­sure the ex­u­ber­ant en­sem­ble doesn’t run away to join the cir­cus.

If the pre­ced­ing sounds to younger din­ers like a page from the play­book of Is­raeli-born chef Yot­tam Ot­tolenghi’s wildly pop­u­lar fu­sion cui­sine, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing De­nis Cot­ter had been walk­ing this par­tic­u­lar path since CP first opened in 1993, some years be­fore Ot­tolenghi even saw the in­side of a pro­fes­sional kitchen.

Cer­tain Le­van­tine grace notes, in­gre­di­ents that mark out Mid­dle East­ern cuisines, may have been tougher to pro­cure on a reg­u­lar ba­sis in Cork back then but the quin­tes­sen­tial tropes were al­ready ev­i­dent in Cot­ter’s cook­ing.

Also equally ev­i­dent were Cot­ter’s Asian in­cli­na­tions; MHD’s Chilli-glazed pan­fried tofu, with pak choi, ta­marind-co­conut broth, rice noo­dles and gin­gered aduki bean won­ton is a light yet lus­cious lift­ing of mul­ti­ple Asi­atic in­flu­ences, mak­ing them his own, even if MHD slightly re­grets her choice on a De­cem­ber night call­ing for win­ter fuel; some­thing, per­haps, akin to V’s King Oys­ter mush­rooms, yel­low chanterelles, friv­ole, pump­kin gnoc­chi, lemon thyme but­ter and salted wal­nuts.

Yet an­other bear-jug­gling-on-au­ni­cy­cle act, this dizzy­ing panoply of el­e­ments is some­how tamed into a solid, sin­gu­lar plate­ful of sea­sonal com­fort, aided in no small part by a moth­er­ing blanket of Aged Coolea cheese sauce.

There is also an awful lot hap­pen­ing around and about JB’s Feta & Pistachio Cous­cous Cake: cit­ric elec­tric­ity of lemon chick­peas; zhoug oil’s chilli sting; bright co­rian­der notes trilling above creamy yo­ghurt’s lac­tic bite; tof­fee-sweet date jam; smoky wilted greens. But the nutty and sur­pris­ingly ro­bust main at­trac­tion an­chors all, a solid may­pole sur­rounded by imp­ish sprites.

My braised turnip galette has be­come a CP sig­na­ture dish in re­cent years, a dux­elle of Por­to­bello mush­rooms and chest­nuts bound with cream cheese, sand­wiched be­tween thin ‘sheets’ of braised turnip. Earthy wood­land flavours and tex­tures meld into a har­mo­nious whole and, served with horse­rad­ish mash, cit­rus sprouts and beet­root/port gravy of deep ver­mil­lion, it is a dish ‘meaty’ enough to sat­isfy Han­ni­bal Lecter him­self.

We or­der four metic­u­lously crafted desserts for shared sam­pling, sweet, rich, yet of suf­fi­cient del­i­cacy to leave us still afloat af­ter all our feast­ing; a Rose­mary set cus­tard with rose­hip syrup and Chest­nut & kumquat pud­ding both de­serve special men­tion.

The rapidly erod­ing stan­dards of ser­vice in the Ir­ish hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try has be­come a par­tic­u­lar bug­bear of mine in re­cent times; it is an ab­so­lute plea­sure to dis­cover CP staff res­o­lutely row­ing against the tide, com­bin­ing easy­go­ing charm with deep knowl­edge and consummate pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

Wines and their de­liv­ery also de­serve high praise: each wine on the tight yet crack­ing list is avail­able four ways, from a 150ml mea­sure right up to a full bot­tle; we ex­ploit this free­dom of choice to the full, trust­ing Sol­padeine to clean up in the morn­ing. All in all, just about the best of­fice Christ­mas party we’ve ever had.

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