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