About 17 years ago, when I made a reservation at a vegetarian restaurant in Cork, my puzzled four-year-old daughter asked: “So you’re going to lie and say you’re a vegetarian?” I would like to think that this had more to do with the lack of vegetarian restaurants at the time, rather than my parenting skills. Although I did manage to raise a vegetarian – older sister to the one who accused me of being a lentil-loving catfisher – and Paradiso, the restaurant in question, is her favourite in the country.
When Paradiso opened 30 years ago, vegetarianism was considered the purview of hippies and health-nuts. In one way, it is remarkable that it is still here, in another way, it is not surprising. Because Denis Cotter, the chef and owner, seems to have created his dishes in an absolute vacuum, as if a world with meat never existed. This freedom from pandering to carnivores means that the food revels in its own worth. It seeks to reference nothing.
While Cotter still oversees the menu, Miguel Frutos is the head chef, driving what happens on a day-to-day basis, continuing the interpretation of Paradiso classics. The current format is a €65 tasting menu, which is clearly popular, as I find myself unable to get a table at any time on a Friday or Saturday, and head to Cork for a Thursday booking. It’s a cosy room, buzzing with the congenial chatter of just about every age group.
The wine pairing is an incredibly reasonable €30, created from a clever list of organic small producers, with a tilt towards natural wine. It’s a list that would put others in the country to shame, with a glass of sherry starting at €5 and cava at €9. In fact, everything is available by the glass and in small formats, with an impressive range of bottles in the mid-€30s to €40s price bracket. We go for Xisto Ilimitado (€36.30), a red wine from the Douro region of Portugal.
Row Wines review: A new restaurant offering a rare thing – small plates and a glass of wine that won’t break the bank
Three small bites come to the table. Anywhere else, these would be considered separate courses, but here it’s casual. There is very little back story and no “one bite” instructions. A slim pull-out drawer at our table holds the menu, so there’s plenty of opportunity to check on things for those of us who are less fond of surprises.
A lentil soup wakes up the palate, landing a serious jolt of heat at the back of the throat; cauliflower in a featherlight batter is glazed with a piquant sauce of fermented chilli, ginger and orange and sprinkled with white sesame seeds; and a little pancake, a Spanish minxo, is loaded with a mix of fried tofu, aubergine and mushrooms, topped with a pickled carrot and zinging with five spice flavours.
Fine veins of spices run through a myriad of elements on our plate for the second course. It is not a case of one too many, instead it eats beautifully. Chunks of scorzonera (black salsify) have been deep-fried in breadcrumbs and sit alongside a crunchy rāyu with chopped hazelnuts and shredded greens, a miso mayo adds earthiness and pickled plums bring a burst of acidity.
This is followed by a pumpkin seed chocolate mole with a touch of heat, a perfect accompaniment to the lightest polenta I have ever tasted, that has been cubed and fried so the outside is crisp. Globe artichoke, sweetcorn and pickles add to the dish as you work across the plate getting each flavour and texture.
Cáis na Tíre is the filling for the tortellini, silky pastry with a firm filling, bathed in a lemony beurre blanc with jagged pieces of hedgehog mushroom. We finish the savoury courses with braised turnip galette, a wintry dish with beetroot jus, a legacy Paradiso dish that just feels a little out of step with the rest of the menu.
There is a choice of desserts or Coolea cheese, so two desserts it is; a posset with an invigorating rasp of blood orange jelly and a ricciarelli (those delicious chewy almond biscuits), and a rum mascarpone with apple, topped with a pecan filigree which snaps as you break through.
At Paradiso, there are no jars of ferments, kojis and preserves, the modern-day arsenal used to add structure and form to vegetarian dishes. Instead, there is an innate understanding gleaned from decades of cooking with exquisite produce, with judicious dabs of spices, herbs and sauces. It is a delight.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €166.30.
The verdict: Innate talent and inspired cooking.
Music: None, a room of delightful chatter.
Food provenance: Impeccable. Gort na Nain Farm, Coolea, Cáis na Tíre, Cratloe Hills, Hegarty’s, Knockalara, Macroom Buffalo.
Vegetarian options: All dishes are vegetarian and there is a vegan tasting menu.
Wheelchair access: Limited accessibility with no accessible toilet.