Re­view Catherine Cleary vis­its Rachel Allen’s new Cork city res­tau­rant

Celebrity chefs usu­ally start in restau­rants and move to TV – Rachel Allen is do­ing it in re­verse

The Irish Times Magazine - - FRONTLINES - CATHERINE CLEARY

You are lucky to be here, ev­eryt hing seems t o whis­per. There are no prices on the web­site when I book an early ta­ble. But we’re eat­ing be­fore 6pm so there’s bound to be an early bird, right? “Please do your best to ar­rive on time. Rachel has many hun­gry guests to feed that would love your ta­ble,” the web­site warns. “We might have to give it to them if you are more than 30 min­utes late with­out no­ti­fy­ing us.”

Okay. The Rachel in ques­tion is Rachel Allen. We know our celebrity chefs by their first names. They come into our homes and make us feel hun­gry. Rachel’s name ( with a lower case r) is in lights over the door of a hand­some con­verted shop on the ground floor of a 19th- cen­tury build­ing op­po­site Cork Court­house on Wash­ing­ton Street.

Lots of celebrity chefs start in res­tau­rant kitchens and move to TV. This tal­ented chef, cook­book writer and teacher is do­ing the re­verse. The tra­jec­tory from TV to re­al­ity doesn’t have a good rep these days, so how does it work on the plate?

Rachel is pick­ing salad in the first pho­to­graph you see on the res­tau­rant’s web­site. This is a res­tau­rant built on her im­age. If we were liv­ing in a cook­book then she would pick ev­ery leaf, tu­ber and stem from Bal­ly­maloe soil and then drive them in a Mor­ris Mi­nor Trav­eller to the res­tau­rant kitchen where she would pre­pare our din­ner.

Of course, no one can spread them­selves that thinly. There’s a team of young en­thu­si­as­tic peo­ple here, no ce- lebri­ties in sight and no sign of any early bird prices. Rachel’s is a gor­geous two- level room dec­o­rated in in­dus­trial- Scandi style, all ex­posed wires and duct­ing and metal- framed glass screens, soft­ened with table­cloths and tweed- up­hol­stered chairs and ban­quettes.

Along the length of one wall hangs an out­landishly huge pitch­fork large enough to skewer round bales like marsh­mal­lows. An­other wall has a se­lec­tion of vin­tage cam­eras hung in their leather cases.

The menu is full of mouth- wa­ter­ing dishes and slightly eye- wa­ter­ing prices ( the fish dish comes in at over ¤ 30). But what mat­ters here is not so much the fame as the farm. Rachel’s is a res­tau­rant with an amaz­ing larder. Fruit, veg­eta­bles and herbs come from Bal­ly­maloe, “where pos­si­ble”. It’s the time of the year when gar­dens are in full throt­tle, so it should all be worth the spend.

And things start well. There’s a plate of lus­cious prosci­utto slices with fluffy clumps of Ard­sal­lagh goats cheese, some pick­led red onion with a great crispy egg, spilling warm yolk over the whole lovely plate. Less suc­cess­ful are the scal­lops served with the roe on. One of them is so small the roe eclipses the scal­lop in size and flavour. There’s a cau­li­flower puree too wa­tery to com­pete with the punchy scal­lop roe, some yel­low­ing pea shoots that don’t taste of peas and then mid­way through this plate, a teeth- jan­gling crunch on a shard of scal­lop shell.

Mains are also a story of two halves. There’s a text- book per­fect sir­loin cooked to a smoky fin­ish sit­ting on top of beau­ti­fully skinned and finely- diced toma­toes laced with tar­ragon. It comes with two kinds of pota­toes chips and skin- on new spuds with dill and but­ter. But the chips are tough and the pota­toes look like they had the but­ter and dill stirred into them a while be­fore they reached the ta­ble.

A risotto makes me won­der if any­one ate this dish from start to fin­ish. It looks In­sta­grammably per­fect – greener than a sum­mer meadow served in a wide- brimmed bowl and topped with parsnip crisps and more of those anaemic pea shoots.

But very quickly the heat from the risotto wilts the parsnip crisps to flac­cid petals. There are two spears of as­para­gus in the risotto along with peas and broad beans. As if to make up for the lesser- spot­ted as­para­gus, there’s way too much cheese. In my world there is rarely a thing as too much cheese but as it cools the whole dish be­comes heav­ier, un­til there’s an al­most marshy suck with ev­ery fork­ful. Half of it goes back un­eaten.

Dessert will get us back on track, we hope. It’s a rhubarb mille- feuille. But again I won­der did any­one test this by ac­tu­ally eat­ing one? The pas­try is dry and so Shred­ded Wheat- hard the crème pâtis­sière and jel­lied rhubarb squelch out on both sides when you try to press a fork down through it. Pis­ta­chio ice cream tastes of syn­thetic al­monds.

I ask for a cof­fee but it gets for­got­ten. It’s com­ing up to 8pm and they’re turn­ing ta­bles. The place is fill­ing with peo­ple who look to have dressed up for a very spe­cial night out.

I ad­mire the phi­los­o­phy be­hind this res­tau­rant and Rachel Allen’s gump­tion in adding the mother- of- all- plates to the many she is al­ready spin­ning. I ex­pected to love ev­ery­thing. And I’m sad that I don’t.

When your name is over the door of a res­tau­rant of this scale, ex­pec­ta­tions are re­lent­less. No one is here to edit out the duff bits. It’s a stark light in which to be judged con­sis­tently ev­ery day at ev­ery sit­ting.

With­out a shared dessert the bill would have topped ¤ 100, with one of us on the free sparkling wa­ter. At that price, the food at Rachel’s should be the star of the show.

Din­ner for two with a glass of wine and shared dessert came to ¤ 93.70.

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