My review of Sage Restaurant in Midleton was published in yesterday’s Irish Examiner but I can always find a few more words to add to anything I have published, being a great man altogether for the guff. When it comes to Sage, I’d have no trouble at all filling a newspaper – I am a big fan of the restaurant.
It would have been very easy for Chef/Proprietor Kevin Aherne to play the provenance card and attempt to ride the coat tails of some very illustrious East Cork neighbours, in particular, Ballymaloe and the Midleton Farmer’s Market. Instead, Kevin quietly set about his business building up the restaurant over the last three or four years very much at his own pace. The room itself is pleasant, comfortable, tastefully decorated but otherwise unremarkable – what shines in Sage is the food, service and ambience.
What I love most about Kevin’s cooking is his very clear vision of how he wants a dish to turn out and his singleminded focus on the fundamentals. He believes in selecting the most excellent produce available, ideally local, and cooking it perfectly before considering the addition of bells and whistles, sturm und drang. (Actually, amend that – Kevin doesn’t do fripperies, all additions are essential to the finished dish.)
Far too many ‘proper chefs’ in Ireland are overly concerned with exotic ingredients du jour – whatever constitutes the latest ‘sundried tomato’ – and the ‘architecture’ of their presentation at the expense of the actual food. Not long ago, I ate a venison dish in a ‘mid-table’, reasonably high profile restaurant (and hasn’t venison become a very mainstream dish?). It was served up on a Rorschach blot of drops, daubs and dashes of sauce on foot of a menu description a mile long, yet was so brutally overcooked, it required a steak knife. Properly cooked venison, seared on a high heat, meltingly rare on the inside, should offer the merest resistance before surrendering utterly to the tooth – Bambi don’t do gristle.
- Kevin (right) and Jon, one of his chefs
It is shocking how many ‘chefs’ neglect their primary responsibility which is ensuring the main component of a dish is properly cooked but Kevin does this to perfection, whether it is Noreen and Martin Conroy’s superb Woodside Farm Free Range Pork, Mike Kenneally’s distinctively flavoured aged Angus beef or Tom Clancy’s stunning Ballycotton Free Range Poultry. He also accords each vegetable footsoldier the same respect and attention (the simple carrot may well be a discreet Aherne signature, a mini-meal in itself, especially during summer when baby carrots are sinfully roasted in butter.) Only then does elaboration come into play, be it presentation or additional ingredients or accompaniments. Successfully executing the latter is the difference between a ‘good cook’ and a ‘great chef’ but there isn’t a single great chef in the world who is not, first and foremost, a good cook.
Kevin, himself, keeps presentation to a minimum, attractive yet completely subservient to the dish itself. However, his additions are judiciously chosen and executed with the sublime confidence of a natural. He can be audacious, daring even in his choice of ingredients and accompaniments but never at the expense of the overall dish. To many (invariably slimmer than me!), who don’t spend most waking hours in contemplation of the nosebag, Kevin’s food is hugely enjoyable but never alarming — if he is going to take anyone out of their comfort zone, it is with a gently reassuring hand. But all the time, he is introducing interesting new twists to traditional staples, the traditional food of his hinterland.
Kevin also takes the other half of his job title, Proprietor, very seriously and will regularly abandon the kitchen for a night on the floor to ensure every single part of the restaurant ‘machine’ is running smoothly. To be honest, it’s hardly necessary, as his partner, Réidín, does an excellent job running front of house, her easy, unobtrusive manner masking a stickler’s attention to detail. On my last visit she was the essence of patience, knowledge and understanding as I put Hamlets agonisings in the ha’penny place, dithering over the wine list. I put my faith in her choice – not easy for a control freak! – and was amply rewarded.
Which brings me nicely to my final gush – the wine list (from Conor O’Brien of James Nicholson Wine Merchants and Smith & Whelan, a small importer of Spanish wines, based in nearby Ballycotton. It is small, perhaps 30 wines at most and, as I recall, other than a single Burgundy and a single Bordeaux, ever after an esoteric and exciting trip off the beaten path, beautifully assembled and reasonably priced. You just know that each and every wine was carefully chosen with an eye to its place in the overall grand scheme of things (ie its relation to the food), not merely selected to plug some perceived geographical gap in the list.
As I say, I’m rather fond of Sage.