Another Irish Mail on Sunday restaurant review from last year, this time of Sage restaurant, in Midleton, Co Cork, run by Chef/Proprietor Kevin Aherne — great restaurant and a great chef!
Four stars out of five ****
Midleton is the de facto ‘capital’ of East Cork, such a notion being entirely possible in Ireland’s largest county and a place where the citizenry aren’t slow to trumpet self-anointed superiority in all endeavours; hence the soubriquet, the ‘Real Capital’. The town’s wide and handsome Main Street is a pleasant reminder of its former status as a prosperous market town but, in food terms, Midleton has long lived in the shadow of an illustrious neighbour from the lush, green agricultural hinterland. No shame there as that shadow is cast by Myrtle Allen and once covered the entire country, Ballymaloe House birthing a culinary empire of international renown.
Allen’s ethos of preferring superb local seasonal produce over inferior imported staples of the ancien regime of classical French cuisine, a locavore philosophy decades before ‘locavore’ was a word, is now hailed as revolutionary the world over. More locally, Myrtle’s manifesto gave rise to a network of superb producers and farmers, initially supplying Ballymaloe but now meeting the needs of other local restaurants and a local population greatly enlarged by its recent evolution as a dormitory town for nearby Cork city. In addition, Myrtle’s daughter in-law, Darina Allen, started the first modern Irish farmer’s market in Midleton some 15 years ago.
Kevin Aherne is Sage’s Chef/Proprieter. Fiercely independent, he has always steered clear of seeking favours from Ballymaloe but is nonetheless a zealous advocate of Myrtle’s ethos, his 12-Mile Menu sourcing entirely from within a dozen miles of the restaurant. Even as Darina stalked the land preaching the locavore gospel, she was entirely unaware of Sage’s existence right under her nose until Aherne hosted a local Slow Food branch dinner. She was an instant convert and, since, accolades and 1wards have grown from a trickle to a deluge. I have been a fan of his cooking for some time but, when I last dined here a year ago, missed the assured simplicity of the early years as he attempted to hit the next level and maybe draw down a little Michelin stardust.
Nursing a fortuitously gammy leg, I am for once Miss Daisy to the dearly beloved’s Driver so, while she is designated, I am drinking. This involves a lovely Sciriani Valpolicella Ripasso 2009 (€36) from an eclectic and excellent wine list, Maitre D’ Paul’s sterling advice, a promising reflection of the overall service.
The room is tastefully decorated, a charming clatter of photos of local suppliers on one wall and a low ceiling and close tables suggest intimacy rather than intrusion. A serving hatch opening into the kitchen is like a wide-screen TV forever tuned to the Food Channel yet, unlike actual television, never becomes distracting.
The place is heaving and The Driver states it is the class of ambience that renders everyone ‘beautiful’. Neither does she appear to be victim to any post-cabin fever euphoria—all and sundry are having a high old time, indulging in the full three courses (fine value at €28.50 a head) and a bottle of vino at each table.
If a restaurant reviewer starts whining about occupational hazards, your average punter tends to have about as much sympathy as they would for a Kardashian pining for some respite from the public eye. But when ordering, I always feel obliged to dispense with personal preference and opt for dishes that might give a proper idea of the kitchen’s strengths so the 12-Mile Tasting Board is a boon indeed.
Mine includes: in-house Smoked Salmon, Shallot & Samphire; comforting Lamb Sweetbread Fritter with a perky Gribiche (an emulsion of finely diced hard-boiled eggs and oil); a sweet Scallop with a sanctified Herb Aioli; and an exceptional Black Pudding, Pickled Shiitake & Béarnaise Sauce, the pudding made in-house and the exquisitely sweet and silky mushroom auditioning to some day star in a dessert. Berries, Beets & Apples is a condensed version of the Driver’s starter, Berries, Beets, Apple, Charred Rhubarb, Cauliflower & Honey. A nervous diner might approach this with trepidation, but earthy beets and velvety cauliflower puree are the sweetest ingredients on the plate, a creamy counterpoint to tart fruit and roasted rhubarb.
My Smoked Duck breast is deeply flavoursome and, if it resists the knife a tad, the accompanying confit duck leg buckles like a baby, collapsing in slivers of succulent dark flesh to vanish along with bright green cabbage and a lucious loganberry puree.
The Driver has Scallops, Confit Turnip, Young Spinach, Shiitake & Beech Mushrooms but, unlike my starter portion, these scallops have been finished in brown butter, forcing an unnerving depth of flavour, more ‘meaty’ than ‘fishy’.
Though Sage’s clientele has evolved, Midleton remains a rural town where some still eat dinner in the middle of the day and expect it to be substantial. This is especially reflected on the dessert menu, where any hint of effete delicacy is utterly banished. The Driver’s delicious Raspberry Cheesecake is a dessert for several sittings as is my Midleton Brick, a sumptuous beast of chocolate, mallow and pastry crisp, so illicitly delicious, I have no shame whatsoever in demanding a doggy bag for the remaining morsels.
Sage has unquestionably made that step up to the next level; it is now the best restaurant in Cork and fast becoming a national player and, for once, it is not more Leeside parochialism to suggest a goodly portion of Myrtle’s mantle is in very safe hands.
Tel. 021 463 9682
Open: Tue-Thurs 12-3pm, 5.30-9pm. Fri-Sat 12-3pm, 5.30-9.30pm. Sun 12-3.30pm, 4-8.30pm.