Review: How does Rachel Allen’s new restaurant measure up?
Celebrity chefs usually start in restaurants and move to TV – Rachel Allen does it in reverse
- 28 Washington St
- (021) 427 4189
- € € € €
You are lucky to be here, everything seems to whisper. There are no prices on the website when I book an early table. But we’re eating before 6pm so there’s bound to be an early bird, right? “Please do your best to arrive on time. Rachel has many hungry guests to feed that would love your table,” the website warns. “We might have to give it to them if you are more than 30 minutes late without notifying us.”
Okay. The Rachel in question is Rachel Allen. We know our celebrity chefs by their first names. They come into our homes and make us feel hungry. Rachel’s name (with a lower case r) is in lights over the door of a handsome converted shop on the ground floor of a 19th-century building opposite Cork Courthouse on Washington Street.
Lots of celebrity chefs start in restaurant kitchens and move to TV. This talented chef, cookbook writer and teacher is doing the reverse. The trajectory from TV to reality doesn’t have a good rep these days, so how does it work on the plate?
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Rachel is picking salad in the first photograph you see on the restaurant’s website. This is a restaurant built on her image. If we were living in a cookbook then she would pick every leaf, tuber and stem from Ballymaloe soil and then drive them in a Morris Minor Traveller to the restaurant kitchen where she would prepare our dinner.
Of course, no one can spread themselves that thinly. There’s a team of young enthusiastic people here, no celebrities in sight and no sign of any early bird prices. Rachel’s is a gorgeous two-level room decorated in industrial-Scandi style, all exposed wires and ducting and metal-framed glass screens, softened with tablecloths and tweed-upholstered chairs and banquettes.
Along the length of one wall hangs an outlandishly huge pitchfork large enough to skewer round bales like marshmallows. Another wall has a selection of vintage cameras hung in their leather cases.
The menu is full of mouth-watering dishes and slightly eye-watering prices (the fish dish comes in at over €30). But what matters here is not so much the fame as the farm. Rachel’s is a restaurant with an amazing larder. Fruit, vegetables and herbs come from Ballymaloe, “where possible”. It’s the time of the year when gardens are in full throttle, so it should all be worth the spend.
Thinks start well
And things start well. There’s a plate of luscious prosciutto slices with fluffy clumps of Ardsallagh goats cheese, some pickled red onion with a great crispy egg, spilling warm yolk over the whole lovely plate. Less successful are the scallops served with the roe on. One of them is so small the roe eclipses the scallop in size and flavour. There’s a cauliflower puree too watery to compete with the punchy scallop roe, some yellowing pea shoots that don’t taste of peas and then midway through this plate, a teeth-jangling crunch on a shard of scallop shell.
Mains are also a story of two halves. There’s a text-book perfect sirloin cooked to a smoky finish sitting on top of beautifully skinned and finely-diced tomatoes laced with aniseedy fennel. It comes with two kinds of potatoes chips and skin-on new spuds with dill and butter. But the chips are tough and the potatoes look like they had the butter and dill stirred into them a while before they reached the table.
A risotto makes me wonder if anyone ate this dish from start to finish. It looks Instagrammably perfect – greener than a summer meadow served in a wide-brimmed bowl and topped with parsnip crisps and more of those anaemic pea shoots.
But very quickly the heat from the risotto wilts the parsnip crisps to flaccid petals. There are two spears of asparagus in the risotto along with peas and broad beans. As if to make up for the lesser-spotted asparagus, there’s way too much cheese. In my world there is rarely a thing as too much cheese but as it cools the whole dish becomes heavier, until there’s an almost marshy suck with every forkful. Half of it goes back uneaten.
Dessert will get us back on track, we hope. It’s a rhubarb mille-feuille. But again I wonder did anyone test this by actually eating one? The pastry is dry and so Shredded Wheat-hard the crème pâtissière and jellied rhubarb squelch out on both sides when you try to press a fork down through it. Pistachio ice cream tastes of synthetic almonds.
I ask for a coffee but it gets forgotten. It’s coming up to 8pm and they’re turning tables. The place is filling with people who look to have dressed up for a very special night out.
I admire the philosophy behind this restaurant and Rachel Allen’s gumption in adding the mother-of-all-plates to the many she is already spinning. I expected to love everything. And I’m sad that I don’t. When your name is over the door of a restaurant of this scale, expectations are relentless. No one is here to edit out the duff bits. It’s a stark light in which to be judged consistently every day at every sitting. Without a shared dessert the bill would have topped €100, with one of us on the free sparkling water. At that price, the food at Rachel’s should be the star of the show.
Dinner for two with a glass of wine and shared dessert came to €93.70.
Verdict: 6/10 Surprisingly patchy for such a stellar food name
Food Provenance: Brilliant. Cheese from Ardsallagh and Knockalara, Ballymaloe and other Cork farms all giving billing
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Limited