Review: La Bohème, Waterford

La Bohème in Waterford makes the most of top-notch Irish produce from local suppliers


Despite what the locals might have you believe, it is the port – and not the blaa or even selling expensive crystal to Americans – that has sustained the city of Waterford for the past 1,100 or so years.

Over that time kings, conquerors and traders have landed on the bank of the Suir that hems the city, shaping its fortunes. The Port of Waterford building is a striking Georgian four-storey looking towards Merchant’s Quay. And fittingly it is here, in the basement, that La Bohème offers a confluence of French cooking and Irish produce.

Opened in 2006 by French chef Eric Théze and his wife, Christine, the restaurant is far cosier than you’d expect as you descend its severe external steps. Inside, they’ve retained the original flagstone floors, vaulted ceilings and metre-thick walls. You pass a bar on the right and a small dining area on the left to reach the handsome dining room at the back. It is large and windowless – and initially quite dark – the only light comes from the kitchen and a scattering of lamps and candles.

The first thing to strike you is the noise. It’s a very busy Friday night – I spot just one empty table – and the enclosed room makes it hard to hear over the din of other diners. There’s music playing but we fail to hear it clearly enough to identify it. We guess Sinatra. Yes, let’s go with Sinatra.

The next thing to hit you is the size of the menu, which is so expansive – as is the wine list – you’d suffer quite an injury if you did get a wallop of it. There’s an à la carte, an early bird, a three-course €35 market menu, then desserts, ports, teas and coffees; it’s quite the opus.

One great addition, however, is the lengthy list of local producers on the first page, from fishermen to farmers to a community horticultural co-op that provides salad and vegetables.

There’s a strong seafood tilt – the specials are lobster and salmon and our first bite is an amuse bouche of chilled lobster bisque crème. It’s incredibly rich, the bisque having been bullied out by the cream.

More subtle – despite the name – is my dad’s blow-torched salmon, a slender pink fillet, lightly charred and served with slices of smoked salmon and a curry and coriander mousse. The mousse is also very rich – there’s no denying the heritage of the sauces in La Bohème – but a tangy horseradish cream saves it from being cloying.

My mother’s baked Triskel goat’s cheese crotin comes hidden under a warm fig compote. This is further hidden under a bunch of dark red frisée – or death lettuce as I’ve taken to calling it, so likely is a choking incident when you eat it. The cheese – made down the road in Portlaw by French woman Anna Leveque – is excellent. The figs are sweet and plentiful, holding on to enough chewiness to highlight the smooth creaminess of the Triskel.

Best of the bunch is my slow-cooked pork belly, which goes well with a glass of 2010 Simone Joseph Côtes du Rhone – while my folks have both opted for a glass of 2011 Lombeline Sauvignon Blanc. Three generous chunks of tender belly are served with white coco beans, piquillo peppers and basil.

The balance of crisp skin to soft flesh and fat is just right, but the beans, although a fresh counterpoint to the sticky honey and soy dressing, taste like generic deli bean salad.

The local theme continues through the mains with a rump of Waterford lamb, pink and juicy and seriously flavoursome, offset by a smoky aubergine caviar and slow roasted tomato.

The lobster special, available in two sizes – 500g for €35 or 800g for €45 – comes in the shell, flambéed in Pernod, with the claw meat served separately in a salad. We can’t find any flavour of Pernod on my mother’s 500g lobster, just lashings of garlicky butter, but no complaints about that. It seems a shame however to offer cold undressed claws next to the sweet, buttery shells.

Confit of duck is the best of the mains, crispy skinned, dark flesh falling asunder, on an excellent Basque ratatouille, the intense flavour of which deftly manages not to do battle with the duck.

The side of garden vegetables is fresh, with bite, but cold – perhaps because the mains arrive while I am in the ladies’ room, and the food is left sitting there for a few minutes. A shame, really, when service is generally good.

Desserts are typically French. Dad’s crème brûlée is large and shallow – the very best kind if you like the hard caramel topping (who doesn’t), served with a salty caramel ice cream.

The cheese trolley – comically carried over rather than wheeled – is modest but well chosen. Our selection includes a Bleu d’Auvergne, more ash-covered Triskel goat’s cheese, a good Reblochon and a Comté. The only quibble is that it’s served with a selection of ordinary shop-bought crackers, an odd decision when such care has gone into the cheese. Coffee comes in pretty bone china with delicate housemade petit fours, so tiny they’re more like petit twos . . .

La Bohème is not cheap. We realise after leaving that my father’s three à la carte dishes were available on the €35 menu. It would have lowered the bill if we’d realised this, or if it had been pointed out to us. But there’s no scrimping on quality. The market menu is good value and La Bohème’s commitment to local producers is magnifique.

A market menu for one, plus two starters, two mains, one dessert, wine, two ports and coffees cost €183.25

The verdict: 7/10. Great food at times, good commitment to local producers
La Bohème, 2 George’s Street,
Waterford, tel:051-875 645
Facilities: Ornate, past the wine cellar
La Bohème in Waterford makes the most of top-notch Irish produce from local suppliersMusic: Indiscernible
Food provenance: Excellent
Wheelchair access: Yes

Catherine Cleary is on leave

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