Kate Ryan, Flavour.ie
Cork, the rebel county – the rebel city; the largest county in Ireland and arguably this country’s spiritual home of great food from farm to fork. For all these reasons and more, creating an Ultimate Cork Guide to Dining Out is going to result in casualties when choosing a Top Ten, but it helps to sharpen the mind of this writer. There are closer to 50 places I’d happily spend my hard-earned Euro’s, from fine dining restaurants to cafes, takeaways to food trucks, but a well curated shortlist requires looking beyond what’s tasty to pinpoint what it is about a restaurant that keeps me wanting to return time and time again. Let’s call it the Craveability Factor.
This guide splits the difference between Cork city and Cork county with five recommendations each. From metropolitan style to a taste of the coast, where provenance of ingredients is key in star-spangled establishments and neighbourhood eateries alike, and from intimate settings to raucous theatres of culinary indulgence, take my hand as I lead you on a journey of Pure Cork food magic!
The Glass Curtain, MacCurtain Street, Victorian Quarter, Cork
There’s a joy to the cooking that comes out of the kitchen at The Glass Curtain. Chef-proprietor, Brian Murray, takes his signature over-the-fire cookery and produces layers of flavour from skilful knowledge of the power of char and combines it with classically made sauces, foams, gels and aioli’s. The integrity of the menu hangs on this and Murray’s careful sourcing of local Cork produce, selected at their peak of seasonality. Happily, Murray takes his seasonal cues from great local vegetables and fruits, and often these are the centrepiece of dishes or vie for the limelight from the perfectly cooked meat and fish. Vegans are easily and deliciously catered for as a result.
Goldie Fish & Ale, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork
There are many things to admire about Goldie. Foremost is the talent that is Aishling Moore, head chef and co-founder of Ireland’s first gill-to-tail fish restaurant. The second is just that – the whole fish, whole catch approach that tells us this is a kitchen with a conscience. As such, expect zero waste dishes as deep-fried fish bones with a pickle juice-spike mayonnaise for dredging; cod collars, fish head fritters, as well as the prime fillets of spanking fresh locally caught fish. The food is spectacular – always – with menus crafted on the day of service responding to what’s landed that morning. The friendly atmosphere, knowledgeable front of house, a phenomenal drinks menu all combines to make this one of the most in-demand restaurants in the city.
Elbow Lane, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork
Jerk Quail, Fish Caramel, Smoked Venison Sausage and Low Smoked Brisket plus a bevvy of bevvies from the onsite nanobrewery, Elbow Lane may be diminutive in size, but the flavours are massive! Cooking exclusively over fire, from naked flame to slow cooking smoke-house style, those who know good food in Cork know that Elbow Lane has got game. Elbow Lane is about all the meat – insides and outsides. Cork historically was known as the Ox Slaughterhouse of Ireland; offal is an important feature in Corkonian food culture. It makes good sense and good taste. Offal sits majestically beside the king of meats, venison; mussels swim in a broth of brewer’s miso dashi, pair that with a smoked King Oyster mushroom. This is exciting, creative cookery inspired by head chef-proprietor Stephen Keogh, a quiet unassuming talent wielding more influence on Cork’s dining out scene that anyone would realise.
Miyazaki, Japanese Takeaway, Barrack Street, Cork
This is no ordinary takeaway; this is where it all started for chef Takashi Miyazaki of Michelin-starred Ichigo Ichie. Now his eponymous restaurant/takeaway is in the capable hands of his head chef, Michael McGrath, who has found a natural symbiosis with this intricate cuisine caretaking such cult dishes as Lemon Ramen while pushing for new creations such as Mussel Kabayaki. There are two staggered opening times, and there is always a queue waiting to hear the magical click as the door opens and in arrive the hordes of hungry Corkonians looking for their Miyazaki fix!
Marina Market, Centre Park Road, Cork
OK, so I might be cheating here a little bit! Marina Market is not about one food stop, it’s about many – 24, right now, although the market is ever evolving. Part covered, part outdoors, this is a food truck park on an epic scale. From Nua Asador where any Tom Durcan steak can be cooked to your exact requirements over fire in under 10 minutes, to Poulet Vous Nashville fried chicken; Instagrammable Guji Coffee and Dinky Donuts; the best of the humble Irish spud at Prátaí to Kura sushi and Sultan’s Lebanese food and so much more. Craft fairs, art exhibitions and performances are also packed into this once derelict space, now the place to hang out down by the river Lee.
Pilgrims, Market Square, Rosscarbery (west Cork)
There are some flavours that are now signatures of Mark Jennings’ Pilgrim’s repertoire. This entry comes with a hearty recommendation to always order a side portion of the Oak Smoked Potatoes – you can thank me later! Local, seasonal, and foraged ingredients are the bedrock of this small restaurant. The interior is sparse, but this does not reflect the indulgent food that spills forth from the creative mind of Jennings. A commitment to low and no waste ensures that there are layers within layers of flavours as everything is utilised to maximum effect. The ethos at Pilgrims may no longer be new or unique, but it is in the execution that this restaurant continues to shine and enjoy a loyal and regular clientele.
Restaurant Chestnut, Ballydehob (west Cork)
Food that moves you: this is what head chef of Michelin-starred Restaurant Chestnut, Rob Krawczyk, offers. Krawczyk learned the art of meat curing from his father, so these, along with smoking, curing and culturing, are signatures of a cuisine that has rightly returned the star to Rob every year since opening. The menu changes seasonally, every two to three months, and has a connectedness to the fleeting Irish seasons, an innate knowledge of ingredients and how to treat them that gifts the diner a true transportive culinary experience. This is sensual food – give into it.
CUSH, Ballycotton (east Cork)
A relative newbie to the Cork scene, yet CUSH has already gained nationwide recognition thanks to the confident cooking of young head chef, Dan Guerin, confirmed by this years’ grant of a Bib Gourmand award. As you might expect from a restaurant located in a famous fishing village, CUSH’s menu is heavily influenced by fresh fish landed on the quay just steps away, and Guerin excels with pinpoint precision in fish cookery. The rule book is simultaneously thrown out, see Halibut cooked with Vadouvan spices, (a take on a Southern Indian curry sauce that is a playful yet elegant modern take on fish, chips and curry sauce), and pulled back in, as witnessed in the four blackberry souffles delivered to our table all completely and utterly perfect.
Sage 2.0, Midleton (east Cork)
Founder and chef, Kevin Ahern, once said he fell into fine dining because he thought that was what he should be doing. He excelled in it, of course, and his 12-Mile Menu gained huge respect sparking a wider debate on what local food means for restaurants. A milestone anniversary and Covid restrictions presented Ahern with an opportunity to do what he always wanted: a funky, social, neighbourhood eatery where the food is as rock and roll as the music. A major revamp of the space – inside and outside in the courtyard, plus a new chef team headed up by fiercely talented chef, Darren Kennedy, has achieved the dream. Fried oysters with chilli mayo, duck ham with broken egg dressing, smoked beetroots, fried chicken crumpets, whey butter sauce with fish, stuffed lamb saddle…I can almost hear the guitars being smashed on the speakers.
O’Mahony’s of Watergrasshill, (north Cork)
In a quiet little village, 10 minutes from Cork’s busiest road interchange at Dunkettle, is O’Mahony’s. Let not the “family-run” description fool you – this place has serious culinary chops, with head chef Barry Phelan applying his wealth of passion and knowledge to the menu. The old world, rustic charm of this pub opens out into a walled courtyard where, during long balmy summer nights, food, drinks, music and laughter make for the perfect night out. Rossmore Oysters, incredible free-range Glenbrook Farm pork, and Gort na Nain asparagus (the most sought-after asparagus in the land, maybe?) are brought together in dishes that has turned this quiet backwater into a place of pilgrimage for foodies in the know.