Ireland, the land of the shortest barbecuing season in the world, thanks to our less than blue-sky perfect summers. I quip, with only the smallest hint of irony, that you would be as well to light the BBQ in mid-winter as you are in mid-summer. I know this by painful personal experience as I recall running an outdoor Pitmaster workshop in West Cork during a full scale hurricane in the middle of August. I kid you not.
The best invention to hit Irish shores then, after free WiFi, has to be the recent wave of indoor BBQ restaurants allowing you to indulge in your favourite BBQ dishes all year round, whatever the weather! I have had the opportunity of dining in quite a few of the Irish offerings over the past couple of years. At best, many can be described as being inconsistently good. I often chalk this down to a restaurant opening because it’s in response to the latest restaurant fad rather than a deep understanding and appreciation of how awesome BBQ food can be when done well.
But, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: Holy Smoke. It is to be found down a little narrow side street in Cork and is base camp to Ireland’s finest home grown smoke and fire chef – John Relihan, a Kerry native from the small village of Duagh.
John discovered his love of food at a young age, leaving Ireland for the bright lights of London where he apprenticed in Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant before taking off around the world to ply and hone his trade. By the time he circled back around to London, Jamie Oliver snapped him up to be his head chef for his then brand new Barbecoa smoke and fire restaurant. Before long, John was earning a reputation as one of the foremost smoke and fire chefs in the UK. An opportunity to open up his own smoke and fire restaurant in the Mardyke Complex in Cork triggered the move back to Ireland and today the restaurant is coming up to the first anniversary of its opening.
John’s right hand man Decky Walsh, is himself a gifted smoke and fire chef who expertly manages the restaurants day to day activities as well as keeping the ship on course when John is called away on one of his many other projects.
The day I turn up to dine for the purposes of this review, John is in London representing the Irish Embassy at the big St Patrick’s Day celebrations; and Decky is on tenterhooks waiting for the call his wife has gone into labour. It’s Saturday night; Ireland has just beaten England to a pulp in the Rugby and the place is hopping. I booked my table via Holy Smoke’s Facebook page – quick response and easily done. I’m hungry and ready to eat the menu if needs be.
As you walk in you are greeted by one of the many convivial members of staff, and the feel of the restaurant hits the sweet spot of understated funky, cool and modern. The original architecture of this old building is still on show with the impressive brick vaulted ceilings nicely juxtaposed to the central array of group table cages, scandi-inspired lightbulb string lights, and scrubbed tables and chairs. Red neon against the bare walls reminiscent of fire pits; the pass, a gleaming white box in the otherwise red-hued el diablo lair, is open for all to see.
Service is friendly and swift. Chilled refreshment arrives by way of bottles of ‘Holy Water’ – always worth a chuckle; condiments are casually contained in a box on the table along with cutlery in old tin cans and rolls of kitchen table – styled on the classic bbq joints of the US.
The menu is laid out as Little Things, Burgers, Meat Trays, Extras and Sides – a nice, simple layout with plenty of choice and flexibility to mix things up a little. Evidence that vegetarians have in the past decided to go to a BBQ restaurant is thankfully restricted to the burger menu with two creative vegetarian options there. I’ve nothing against vegetarians per se, but what inspires one to go to a BBQ restaurant and expect vegetarian food is a little beyond me.
As much of the food is cooked low and slow over smoke and fire, food comes quickly yet presented nicely. I order a glass of Argentinian Malbec with promises of a ripe blackberry aroma and intense jammy, chocolate flavours. It wasn’t a hard sell to be fair.
In any other setting, me ordering ‘Holy Communion’ would trigger concern from my husband, but here communion is smoked jerk chicken wings, hotlinks from Gubbeen in West Cork, mixed pickles and chicharrón (deep fried pork skin dusted with smoky paprika). There was a nice subtle hint of heat from the jerk chicken, and although normally I would have wanted a much bigger punch of Caribbean heat, thankfully the absolutely delictable hotlinks saved the day. Quite frankly the tastiest thing I have eaten in quite some time. Bravo!
My husband ordered the BBQ Brisket Panko Balls – shredded brisket rolled and coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried. The sweet and sour sauce to accompany was the perfect counterpoint to the richness of the meat. Again, on the plate everything looking clean and simple but with layers of intense flavouring that you only get when allowing quality meat to cook low and slow.
There is quite an amount of temptation when it comes to the main courses, but to me, although the burgers are superb (really), I wouldn’t feel as though I was doing the whole ‘low n’ slow’ thing justice if that was my choice. Instead I decided to go with the Flat Iron Steak. You don’t see this cut of meat on menu’s too often, maybe because it takes an experienced hand to cook it just right. The only choice with this dish is the flavour of salt and the finishing sauce you would like.
It comes medium rare (that’s it, don’t even bother asking!). To cook it any other way would destroy the beautiful flavour of the meat which is finished on the grill using the famous Holy Smoke herb brush – bunches of fresh woody herbs tied to a wooden spoon, spending its day sitting in a saucepan of melted pure Irish butter.
I opted for the Jameson smoked sea salt and the chimichurri sauce which is laden with fresh coriander, a hint of red chili and doused in excellent quality green EVO, and a side of bone marrow mash to go with – super smooth and creamy mash with the most amazing bone marrow gravy swirled on top. Whatever about converting to religion, I’ve already found my heaven.
Our other main course choice was The Pitmaster Platter – allegedly for one person, but I have my doubts. Wet rubbed baby back ribs that literally fell off the bone, ¼ of a pit smoked jerk chicken, house pulled pork swaddled in a sweet smoky rich sauce, served up with house made pickles and a naked slaw made of fresh peppery celeriac and herbs. About half way through, my dining partner realised he had probably over-ordered for his sparrow like appetite. I felt obliged to give him a supporting hand… mostly around the pulled pork area.
Normally, dessert wouldn’t feature after the mountain of food consumed, but our commitment to this review was strong so we decided to bravely soldier on! We went with a Cheesecake and two spoons. It arrived lashed in Jameson Whiskey salted caramel sauce and with pieces of honeycomb strewn about. Cheesecake good – surprisingly light and fluffy; the sauce – good enough to drink straight out of the jug (if only it came in a jug); but the honeycomb was truly the star of this dessert. Crunchy and salty to begin with but a long lingering finish of real honey right at the end. The best honeycomb I have ever tasted.
Not all BBQ restaurants are created equal. The pedigree and knowledge of the chef team of John Relihan and Decky Walsh is clear to see here. The whole staff are polite, welcoming and engaging. The menu is well considered and follows through in the wine and drinks selection too. The décor strikes the right balance of modern without it feeling like it’ll be out of date in 5 minutes time, and it is spotlessly clean.
This is a highly recommended gem on the Cork food scene – doing things a little differently but with huge amounts of authenticity and commitment to using the best of Irish produce.
My only criticism? The pickles. The function of the pickle is to refresh the pallet and to aid digestion. But, a little more refinement is needed here. The pickles should be less chunky, and the pickle is too fresh meaning that the flavour is one of just pure vinegar without the mellowing effects of sugar, spices and other herbs which could really excite the pallet and complement the dishes better.
For total bill for a meal of two starters, two main courses and a side, one dessert, a glass of wine and a double espresso (needed to get us home in one piece safely before the food coma set in) came to €67.10.
For what we ate, the quality and the sheer quantity, we both agreed that this represented excellent value for money.
Holy Smoke Cork,
Little Hanover St,
T: (021) 427 3000
Kate Ryan is a food writer, blogger and founder of Flavour.ie a website that is dedicated to promoting West Cork Food through writing, events and tours. Kate writes regularly for The Opinion Magazine and The Southern Star newspaper and has been featured in the Irish Examiner and Irish Times. Her blog is recipe driven showcasing the best of West Cork produce and encouraging everyday cooking with it at home as well as the best places to eat in the region. Kate hosts a very popular social dining “Supper Club” as well as organising a variety of food-related events getting people to enjoy great local food together. In the summer season, Kate also runs the only guided Walking Food Tour of Clonakilty which takes place every Friday June to August and is accredited by Fáilte Ireland for the Wild Atlantic Way. Kate is also a judge with Blas na hEireann and the Irish Quality Food Awards.
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