After a great deal of finagling and an almighty amount of shenanigans, we managed to get my (actually quite ill) brother and his wife through the doors of the Castle Café (www.castlecafe.ie), in Blackrock Castle, last Saturday night for a surprise joint 40th birthday party. Despite my poor brother looking and acting as if he would have been better off dining (come to think of it, he couldn’t eat a thing!) in O’Connor’s funeral home, he enjoyed himself enormously. My sister-in-law, who wasn’t remotely sick, said that the night ranked right up there with her wedding day, high praise indeed! The choice of venue was agreed by one and all to be a major factor in making the night such a success.
Over the years, there’s been all manner of activity in Blackrock Castle, an often dark history, riddled with atrocities, amongst them food served at several weddings I attended during the 80s and the 1991 Xmas party for the now sadly defunct Beaumount Celtic FC, the anti-Barcelona of AUL Division 3A when we were served a choice of hall carpet or lino from the outside jax. As for the ‘bar’, in the lodge, adjacent to the Castle …? Safe to say, Rutger Hauer’s speech at the end of Bladerunner (‘I’ve seen things’ etc, lists out interplanetary wonders and so on) would have been a tad more harrowing if he’d passed a Saturday night in this particular establishment.
Blackrock Castle disappeared off the social scene for quite a spell, entering private ownership before being bought back by the Cork City Council. Following a long overdue and extremely tasteful makeover, the CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory (http://www.bco.ie/) became the latest tenant under the management of the industrious and talented Clair McSweeney. In addition, the old lodge/bar was renovated and a beautiful glass extension was installed, to serve as a café/restaurant. Longtime adopted Corkonian Riccardo Vallebella started the ball rolling with La Trattoria, scene of some legendary nights and parties, and, more importantly still, gave the eldest Swashbuachaill progeny his first proper job.
The reigns have now been handed over and the current incumbent is the Castle Café, a sister restaurant of the extremely popular Market Lane in the city centre. Like Market Lane, the menu is decent if a tad mainstream – no fear of alarming the more ‘occasional diner’ with anything too outré – with a strong emphasis on good local produce, cooked well, no unnecessary showboating. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting or unusual dishes to be had, lurking around the fringes and on the list of daily specials. There’s a nice pork and date paté and with game never so popular, a scrumptious sounding venison special that I unfortunately heard about too late.
But a good restaurant is not only about the food – though it is my primary focus whenever I dine out, apparently, for most restaurant-goers it is the other way around, food accounting for a mere 30% of the experience, the other 70% all about service, venue and atmosphere. Well, this is where the Castle Café scores very, very highly indeed, without doubt, one of the best I’ve experienced in a long while.
Under the watchful eye of co-owner and manager, Jerry O’Sullivan, the service is superb and if the night we were there is anything to go by, atmosphere is also excellent. It’s the little things that really make a difference, waiter Tomas, one of two looking after our party, mentioned discreetly to me that a steak for one of the guests beside me mightn’t have been cooked exactly as he may have wanted – if I noticed any hint of disapproval, to throw a wink Tomas’ way. So it transpired, Tomas whisked away the dish and had a perfect replacement back on the table in less than six minutes, precisely as promised.
Seeing that my own steak wasn’t quite as ‘blue’ as I wanted, he replaced that too and with a defibrillator and a good cognac, I could have had the thing back on its feet and grazing within 20 minutes. I, however, ate it instead and it wasn’t half bad at all!
Sited, slap bang in the middle of one of urban Cork’s most popular walks, the ‘old railway line’, along the Marina by the river, up Castle Road and then back to the foreshore by the Lee Estuary and all the way down to Passage, the Castle is perfectly primed for passing pedestrian trade. The open-topped sightseeing bus also stops here and as its just around the corner from us here in Blackrock and open seven days a week from 9am right through to dinner, the Swashbuachaills have been known to decamp en famille for brunch of a lazy day when Herr Swashbuachaill is of too delicate a disposition to effect further miracles in the kitchen.
Attention is paid to every little detail and, another huge plus, the commitment to local produce extends to beers, specifically, Irish craft beers. Three lovely brews from the Dungarvan Brewing Company (including the delicious Black Rock Stout) and the stunning Stonewell Cider are all available. Keep eyes and ears peeled in the coming months for developments on this front that will place the Castle Café close to the heart of the Irish Craft Beer Scene.
I’ll be back with news of that at a later stage and some pics as well. On the night, my camera was left safely at home along with a bag of presents. The only surviving photos of the evening should turn up shortly in the National Enquirer unless I can stump up the outrageous sums being demanded by the blackmailers.