Perhaps my favourite moment in The Menu, the satirical film that lacerates fine dining with the precision of a Pacojet, is “Breadless bread plate. No bread, savoury accompaniments”. It is the second course served to 12 diners in a fictitious restaurant, some of whom are dazzled by the total absence of the bread and the conceptual genius of the chef.
At Terre, the swanky new restaurant in Castlemartyr Resort Hotel, in east Cork, there is no standalone bread course, which is a relief. Much as I enjoy my daily carb, I always find it strange when it’s served on its own. Invariably, it’s on a “surprise” tasting menu, where you’ve no idea what’s coming next to plan necessary space requirements. Here, on their €180 tasting menu, bread is employed for a noble purpose, served alongside a spectacular dish that merits mopping up.
It’s dining as an experience and as Fergus McDevitt, the general manager, opens the door to the kitchen, a resounding “welcome” is shouted by a brigade of chefs. It is so The Menu-esque, I try not to laugh. We sit at one end of a long chef’s table with Last Supper energy.
It’s cinematic. Vincent Crepel, in his chef’s whites, is illuminated beneath one of the lights at the pass; the other chefs, dressed in khaki, blend into the dramatically dark background. Deep Purple is pumping on the sound system.
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McDevitt suggests a glass of grower champagne. I suggest sherry (it’s always cheaper), but it turns out it’s not available by the glass. I’m ordering blind here, as for some reason we haven’t been shown the drinks list. So champagne it is. Round one to the man in the black suit, at €28 a glass.
The snacks are divine, single bites of deliciousness – each one with a shopping list of ingredients, but all tasting of themselves – smoked veal, Wexford stone crab with finger lime, and Ballycotton lobster with lemon and horseradish cream.
The wine list arrives, and a wine pairing is suggested, but at €110 or €220 for the premium option, a bottle is a more accessible choice. It’s tricky when you’re in surprise-menu territory, you’ve no idea what’s coming; but Filip Palfi, the sommelier, has some sound advice and suggests a bottle of Goliardo (€75), a light red from Rias Baixas. That’s round two to me: I’ve avoided the wine-pairing ruse.
We move to the pass, where it’s a show and tell of the ingredients that will be used in our tasting menu: caviar, lobster, hand-dived Norwegian scallops and Miyazakigyu wagyu beef, which arrives as our next snack. The beef has been marinated in sake for 24 hours, seared and wrapped in toasted seaweed with dabs of barley koji, tomato confit and white-wine shallots; it is knee-weakeningly beautiful. The smokiness of the seaweed lingers on the finish.
Our next stop is the diningroom. This is chapter two of our experience, we’re told, and a parade of seven exquisite dishes follow, many of them with tableside service. Petals of purple radish nestle pearls of trout roe, sitting on top of pristine bluefin tuna, a dish of real delicacy. This is followed by chawanmushi, a delicate Japanese custard with the formidable umami flavours of 46-month-aged Parmesan. It trembles as I dig in with a small wooden spoon, scooping up foie gras, smoked eel and wagyu ham as I go.
It is at this point that I get a real sense of what Crepel is about, and it goes way beyond his mastery of French technique interwoven with Asian influences. Philosophically, his approach is quite Japanese in style, with a considered flow to the menu, starting quietly and building, pulling back when necessary and always in balance. It is a thing of beauty.
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The tempo pulls back a little for the scallop dish that follows. Cooked tableside and added to a bowl with king crab, hamachi and Ballycotton lobster dressed with a fine slice of lardo, the lardo melts and adds a little salt to the makrut lime broth as it is poured over. The scent of lemongrass is heavenly. Nothing overpowers, each element tastes vividly of itself.
Cod, with white asparagus barigoule and a generous quenelle of caviar, is served with a phenomenal Vermouth beurre blanc before a return to the big flavours. A grilled quail is brought to the table, then taken back to the kitchen to be plated with roast endives and topped with an albufera sauce made with foie gras, cognac and madeira. Yes, you read that right, and this point is, of course, the perfect moment for the introduction of bread, particularly fluffy brioche, which mops up every single drop of that sauce.
A palate cleanser with ginger, lime and a touch of rose oil is followed by an almost savoury dessert. A rhubarb compote in the bottom of the glass is layered up with rice gelato, crunchy pearls of jasmine milk tea and matcha powder. I like the restraint of the dish, bringing the tempo of the menu back down, but I find that it doesn’t hold my interest for the final few spoons.
But the experience is not over. Chapter three is in the salon for petits fours. It becomes evident that there is a sequence of service that is built around coffee and digestifs which we skip, so we find ourselves waiting for our last bites to arrive. Again, it feels like we’ve been put in a position where we should be dipping into the rather pricy drinks list when we would prefer to retire.
Eating at Terre is rarefied territory for most people. It’s expensive, so you may want to use the “I don’t play golf” rationalisation. Unless you do play golf, and then you will probably be more aware of relative value. Terre is by no means out of kilter with other restaurants at this level in Ireland and internationally, and the food is exquisite. It is bringing something unique to Ireland.
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Inevitably, comparisons are being drawn between Terre and the other Michelin-starred restaurants in co-owner Peng Loh’s portfolio, particularly Zén, his three-Michelin star restaurant in Singapore, which he owns with the Swedish chef Björn Frantzén. And there are similarities – the walkaround experience, and some of the dishes on the tasting menus.
Zén, a sister restaurant to three-Michelin star Frantzén in Stockholm, bagged two stars in 2019, just 10 months after opening, and landed a third in 2021. The question everyone is asking is: will Terre do the same, and go straight in at two stars when the new Michelin Guide is released, on Monday, March 27th? Who knows. It all depends on how many visits the inspectors have made. What seems to be without doubt is that it will land one star. And that’s going to bring a whole new level of attention to this exceptional new restaurant. The advice is to book now and start saving.
Dinner for two with two glasses of champagne and a bottle of wine was €491.
The Verdict: Exquisite food and a unique experience.
Music: The Doors, Deep Purple, ZZ Top, The Police.
Food provenance: Exemplary, the world’s very best produce.
Vegetarian: Available with advance notice, no vegan options.
Wheelchair access: Accessible with accessible toilet.