Trying to define what makes a restaurant great is like trying to catch a moonbeam and hold it in your pocket. Is it the lighting, the food, the service, the decor, the ambience, the pictures on the walls? Is it the orchestral feeling you get when every instrument is in tune and the conductor is totally at one with it all? I wondered this after our visit to Cork. We arrived at the Farm Gate in the English Market at about 9.15am for a fabulous breakfast in that lovely restaurant space. Part garret, part French chique, part art gallery, Kay Harte’s iconic cafe spreads its charm over the ancient food market in the heart of Cork. Kay spoke of her cafe with the passion of an artist who has known torment but also moments of great achievement. Kay shared her story with us and inspired and frightened in equal measure. Great staff, an overflowing larder filled with the best of food below the cafe with a constant supply of fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables all day every day. She spoke lovingly of the cross section of Cork who daily frequent the cafe,from tea and toast to fish and chips and all between. Kay clearly loves the business, finds it demanding but exhilirating and left us in no doubt that her gentle exterior masks a brilliant restauteur.
It is the food,the staff, the welcome, the poetry wall, the black and white producer photos, , the french music, the buzz, the multi strands of Cork popping in and out, the quality, the owner’s obvious love of what she has created – all coming together to create that indefinable atmosphere which draws Cork folk in time after time.
We left Kay who was so generous with her time and advice and toured the sights, smells and sounds of the ancient English Market space. Pasta from Iago, Fish from O’Connells, chicken, beef, lamb, sandwiches, olives, chocolates, artisan breads, pates and a myriad of multicoloured foods assail from every side. We imagine what it must be like to be able to shop here every day.
We popped out to Midleton to see The Farm Gate sister cafe which was also buzzing with happy people and staff wearing the whitest shirts we had ever seen. Sally tells us that business is great and with such a great space so it should be. Simplicity in decor seems to be the key again. Whitewashed walls, great timber tables in all shapes and sizes, super staff, gorgeous food- the orchestration again of an owner who loves the business. We were already too full to eat much so we sampled and loved the quiche and a simple green salad.
Back to Cork to eat again and to another Cork staple – Nash 19 in Princes St, owned by Clare Nash, another restaurateur with a passion for excellence and quality. Nash has been open for 19 years and was hopping when we arrived at 1. 45pm. The staff wear fabulous pink cotton shirts and ra ra skirts with long aprons. What a relief from all black- what is it with all black – we generally dont wear black well yet the vast majority of the food service industry is dressed head to toe in black. Why?
The staff also blew us completly away with their knowledge and passion for the food being served. I have yet to come across a person as enthusiastic about the products on the menu as our extremely friendly waitress Bernie. Her knowledge of the menu and her genuine connection with the business and food being served was astonishing. She sold us four mixed food platters simply on her description. They did not disappoint. I had a fish pie which everyone tasted and pronounced delicious. Tommy had a lamb burger which he refused to share because it was so delicious and we all had sinful desserts. Clare joined us and generously explained her passion for the business, the challenges of keeping it right, the constant striving for perfection and the advantages of having fantasic staff such as Pam, the headchef; Mairead the manager and all the great staff who are every day working to keep up a very high standard across the business. Times are challenging but the business is good, food is great and the customers keep coming back for more.
So, its the food, the staff, the service, the range of products for sale in the ‘shop’, the passion of the owner for perfection, the customers who keep coming back for more.
And so we stumble out into the late afternoon Cork sunshine and head for a long walk before making our way to another Cork institution that is Isaac’s Restaurant on Mc Curtain St. We are wistfully longing to live here, where people take great food, ambience and magnificent orchestration completely for granted. Canice greets us at 7pm with his restaurant already full and will be twice full before the night is out, his business partners Micheal and Catherine Ryan- longtime industry greats have the night off but their charming daughter Emma ably fills the family gap. On a very busy street with no parking , Isaacs has broken all the rules in relation to location and is thronged day after day night after night because they too have that indefinable ‘moonbeam’ quality that makes a restaurant great. The huge windows, the beautiful room, the simplicity in decor, the great staff, the consistently great food that customers love. Canice also generously shares with us what makes it tick. Simplicity, consistency, controls, standards, training and a commitment to quality. More great food in a room which is electrifying in its energy.
How simple they all make it sound. Their simple explanations conceal the groundwork, the building of the business brick on brick, week by week, year in year out. What comes through across these three icons of the Cork food scene is the love they all have for the business and the satisfaction they get from bringing it all together.
We head back to the midlands truly stuffed and deeply inspired and thankful to such generous people who are certainly making Cork a happy culinary spot- there are many others in Cork who add to the culinary mecca but alas our time and appetite is limited. Maybe some day we will revisit.
I wondered what impact this has on the future of our group who were in awe of such professionals in action. We spent the following morning mulling over it and discussing what makes it all work.
What follows is a wonderful ‘ditty’ penned by Caroline, Craig and Joe ( all rights reserved!) to sum up what they had learned in Cork- sing to the tune of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend – video up shortly.
‘ I woke up this morning with a grand idea,
that systems are a guy’s best friend,
I must keep it simple so my quality stays unbelievable
And training is achievable.
Food gets stale, accountants wail
Waste will bring us down in the end,
But seasonality, originality and God damn personality,
Standards are a guys best friend.
There may come a time when a guy needs a lawyer,
But training is a guys best friend,
There may come a time when your EHO says
That your’e awful nice, but get that fridge
or else no dice.
Momentum is king, it keeps you in swing
Kitchen porter defends to the end.
Through good times and bad times
And God awful sad times
Profit is a guys best friend.
Huge thanks to all in Cork, as you can see it brought out the poet in us.