The People’s Republic of Food – Cork’s Casual Dining Revolution
Cork has a reputation as a centre of excellence for great food. West, North, East and South of the city, the surrounding farm land supports some of the best know cheese makers, organic growers, and other artisan food producers in the country. Ardsallagh Goats Cheese, Clonkility Black Pudding, Toonsbridge Mozzarella, and Gubbeen Chorizo are just some of the fine foods that have become household names, and staples on the menus of some of the best eateries all over Ireland.
Sourced directly from the farms, the city’s iconic English market, or one of many artisan food stores, Cork’s chefs and home cooks use these ingredients as platform for great cooking. However the dining scene in Ireland’s second biggest city has tended to settle a little under the radar. But while restaurants in Dublin and Galway have claimed Michelin stars, in the Rebel County there is an altogether more casual love affair with food going on.
As you stroll through its streets, and famous covered market, you can’t help but notice an entrepreneurial spirit in the air, and a crop of new and exciting food ventures. A casual dining revolution is in full swing. Food is for everybody, at any time; a civic virtue; a democratic glue that connects the people. Cork is known for its rebellious streak, and this is one food revolution we will happily get involved in. Follow our guide to some of the best casual dining spots in the Rebel City, and take one (or two, in the case of Ali’s Kitchen’s doughnuts) for the cause.
Beneath the vaulted ceiling of the old wine cellars of the Mardyke Complex on Little Hanover Street, renowned Pitmaster John Relihan can be found cooking, low and slow, the finest locally sourced meats over wood and charcoal at his BBQ smokehouse restaurant, Holy Smoke. The former head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa in London has brought his experience home, and the people of Cork have welcomed him back with open arms, savouring favourite like the twice-smoked ‘Brisket Burnt Ends’ and ‘Dirty Swine’ burger, and the fine selection of craft beers, cocktails and, of course, bourbons and whiskeys.
It seems the the flavours of the deep south are relished in Ireland’s southern capital, on the other side of the city another BBQ restaurant, The White Rabbit, has settled in well on MacCurtain Street. Like at Holy Smoke, they offer an authentic american BBQ experience complete with the traditional sides, like corn on the corn on the cob, slaw, BBQ beans and Mac & Cheese, and house-made sauces – so popular that they are also sold by the bottle.
Gourmet burgers have become the cornerstone of restaurant menus across the country, with custom-grind beef blends, unique condiments, and deluxe toppings coming as standard. The burger boom hasn’t skipped over Cork, along with Holy Smoke, the chicken and burger concept at Coqbull, on French Church Street, has made it favourite haunt of the people of Cork. Taking the winning formula from the restaurant of the same name in Limerick city, Coqbull elevates fast food classics; so fast in fact that from Monday to Thursday they guarantee you lunch in ten minutes for €10, or your money back.
One of the troops in Cork’s culinary revolutionary army, The Meatball Place on Carey’s Lane, says it’s also at “the frontlines in a fight against tasteless Meat.” The concept is an Australian import, brought to Ireland by Tony Costello and Grainne Holland: choose your ball, chicken, pork, fish, beef, or falafel; then a blanket of one of six sauces; and finally a bed, including choices of classic fresh spaghetti, creamy mash, and market greens. Particularly social media saavy, keep an on their Instagram page for impromptu deals, and last minute offers, or sign up to their news letter for flash sales.
Choosing fish over football, the Kerry fishing family, the Quinlans, the long held rivalry with their neighboring county on ice to bring their offering of fresh fish and shellfish served in a casual setting to Cork. Already a popular eatery in Killarney and Tralee, Quinlan’s Seafood Bar has taken like a fish to water on Cork’s Princes Street, where the menu is based on what has been landed by their very own boats in Renard and Caherciveen. Though it’s yet to be decided whether their fish and chips can match that of Cork’s favourite chipper, Jackie Lennox’s on Barrack Street.
Having travelled and worked all over Europe, Ali Honour, owner and Head Chef at Ali’s Kitchen, has brought an eclectic and vibrant addition to the Cork food scene. Tucked away in the corner of the bustling Rory Gallagher Place, at the ‘bakehouse’ Ali puts a modern twist on classic dishes. For Saturday brunch, you might find a Cork’s favourite like corned beef whipped up into a hash, and served with potatoes, poached eggs and hollandaise, and don’t leave without one her signature cinnamon swirl buns or doughnuts, with fillings such as chocolate & honeycomb and caramel custard & praline.
Just like in the capital, Thai food is fast becoming the takeaway of choice for the people of Cork. This is in no small part thanks to Ramen, the fun, fast and healthy-ish Asian street food restaurant that has sprawled across Cork city and county, opening up in five locations in just two years. When eating in, similarly Dublin’s Neon, you collect your food at the counter and can choose to eat it straight from the carton, or get all fancy and toss it into a deep white bowl, and all dishes come with a fill-it-yourself ice cream cone too. Grab a bargain before 6pm, with rotating special priced at just €6.
Authentic Japanese food took its time to come to Cork, but when it did the city was spoiled with the arrival of Miyazaki on Evergreen Street in 2014. Despite being mainly a takeaway (though the ‘hot noodle soup’ is eat in only) the tiny eatery has gained a reputation for serving ‘The Best Japanese Food in Ireland’. The mind boggles following Takashi Miyazaki on social media; his feed includes a continual stream psychedelic-coloured dishes, made with a mix of local and exotic ingredients, and a constantly evolving chalkboard menu, with daily specials that might require translation before ordering. Can’t get to Cork fast enough to try Takashi’s food? Try one of his recipes on TheTaste here.
The English Market isn’t just where you can find the best ingredients to make a great meal, but where you can get a meal made for you too. As well as the renowned Farmgate cafe, there are thoughtfully prepared doorstep sandwiches and tasty salads at The Sandwich Stall, O’Flynns Gourmet Sausage sandwiches, and even an oriental option from Maki Sushi Rolls – Ireland’s first dedicated maki roll shop.
Joining the familiar faces are the newbies at the market’s ‘Start Up Stall’, an innovative initiative which sees a new trader take residency at the market for 6 weeks before handing on the baton to another fledgling foodie venture. So far it has given a home to Oh Naturelle, creators of Great Taste award winning sorbets and dairy-free ice-creams, Elbow Lane Smokehouse Sauce, and current residents Naturally Nourished, who sell a range health foods and snacks.
Located just outside the Prince’s Street entrance to the English Market, you can’t help but notice the light blue facade and superhero themed logo of The Rocket Man. Founder Jack Crotty launched The Rocket Man at Cork’s farmers markets, and since has established the salad bar, which offers flavoursome hearty salads, and a second installment EAST, in the iconic Winthrop Arcade, serving freshly made falafel and flatbreads, and great coffee. Fun fact: A Ballymaloe Cookery School alum, Jack graduated in the same class as John Downey of Ramen (see above), and Jack Kirwan of Dublin’s Sprout & Co.
Taking the winning formula from their sausage stall in the English Market, the third generation of O’Flynn sausage makers set up a small cafe in the nearby Winthrop Arcade. With a grill constantly sizzling, they fry up their award-winning sausages on hotplate, and tuck them in bread rolls with your choice of tasty additions. There are other options too, like burgers and their version of the classic bangers and mash, but for a real taste of Cork try the ‘Cork Boi’ sausage sandwich complete with the award winning Pork & Beef sausage made with Murphys Stout, served in a freshly baked O’Keefe’s Bakery bread roll with Ballymaloe relish, fried onions and gherkins.
While Holy Smoke and The White Rabbit boast an admirable range of craft beers to pair with their BBQ meats, Elbow Lane does one better combining an in-house nano-brewery with a smoke house. Sadly the restaurant, situated next door to sister restaurant Market Lane on Oliver Plunket Street, is closed temporarily due to a fire. However that hasn’t stopped the team going on to win two gold medals at the Blas na hEireann 2016 awards Gold award for their Smokehouse Sauce and Smokehouse Dry Rub, and taking temporary residence at The English Market’s Start-Up Stall this summer.
Along with Elbow Lane, the ever popular Market Lane, and The Castle Cafe, at Blackrock Castle (also highly recommended), ORSO is one of four venues brought to us by husband and wife Conrad and Judy Howard, and their business partner Tracey Corbett. ORSO brings the fresh and vibrant flavours of the Middle East to Cork, with options like Lebanese flatbreads with Ottolenghi style salads by day, and fennel and black sesame crusted pork fillet with zhoug and tabbouleh salad at night. These flavours are carried through to Persian inspired desserts like lemon and goats curd cheesecake with almond and sesame base, and cardamom creme brulée with sponge fingers.
For Indian food unique not alone to Cork but to Ireland, you must go to Iyers, a tiny, family run cafe on Pope’s Quay serving authentic Southern Indian vegetarian food and snacks made fresh daily. Chef Gautham Iyer cooks according to Ayurvedic principles, and the chalkboard menu changes regularly to accommodate the ancient Vedic texts, as well the seasons, and the menu often including the fruits of Gautham’s foraging. The usual suspects at this award winning eatery includes snacks such as pakoras and samosas, a variety of dosas, and more substantial Thali plates, all served with fresh chutneys and delicious lentil sambar.
Cork may not have any Michelin stars but chef Jason Carroll has seen his fair share of Michelin starred kitchens, having worked in London with 2 Michelin starred chef Anton Mosimann OBE, Pierre Kofmann at 3 Michelin star La Tante Claire, and the 2 starred Flying Fish in Sydney, among others. His achievements also include working as executive Chef at the Sheraton & Westin Resort & Spa in Fiji, overseeing both hotels with 125 chefs, 12 restaurants, and banquets for more than 1,000 guests. Returning to his hometown he took a more humble, but no less considered, approach to food, starting LovingSalads as a farmers market stall in 2014 and opening his first shop in Cork in September 2015, serving over 28 healthy, creative and delicious salads. There’s even a Fijian influenced ‘Kokoda’ salad made with marinated fresh cod with coconut cream, chilli, coriander, and lime juice.
Not a bricks and mortar set up but certainly one to keep a roving eye on is The Sharp Knife. Pop-up restaurants are becoming de rigour in Dublin, and recent CIT graduates and chefs Bryan Phelan and Michael McGrath spotted there was a pop-up niche in the market in Cork. If their most recent event is anything to go by, where they created a 7 course street food feast paired with wine in a traditional West Cork pub, we can expect some exciting ventures from this ‘guerrilla style’ catering company.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.