You may have seen a Japanese man picking cherry blossom in Douglas on a Sunday morning in March. Takashi Miyazaki was gathering a garnish. He spread the white blossoms out to dry with a little salt, and now they're in a jar in his new restaurant, Ichigo Ichie, in Cork city. Scraps of yearned-for spring transformed to a taste of its slipping past. It's thereness and goneness all at once.
Being in the moment is the thing here. Mirrored glass in the window and charcoal paint have cloaked it in anonymity from the outside. You step out of rush hour and into somewhere unrecognisable as the former Fenn’s Quay restaurant. The matt black continues inside, giving it a theatrical feel, so unadorned you could be walking through a magazine page, with all the clutter, kids, pets and coats shoved in the car for the photo shoot.
There are small, well-spaced tables, but I’m heading for a stool at the chef’s counter, the last (and slightly late) arrival for one of the five seats. It’s all more relaxed than it sounds. No one’s wearing a suit or looks over 35 (although the lighting is kindness itself). The zing to all this Zen will be on the plates.
Takashi Miyazaki, smiling shyly as he hands us beautiful things to eat, looks like a man in his element. Ichigo Ichie is his dream, he says
It’s a First World whinge, but chef’s tables are not my favourite thing. I would rather talk to a friend than watch a young chef give herself a widow’s hump hunched over a plate with tweezers and a stress-induced peptic ulcer. This counter is different. Ingredients appear in beautiful bowls from their nooks and fridges and places under the counter. Tupperware, ziplock bags and plastic bottles are nowhere to be seen. Wood, glass and ceramic containers make the process as beautiful as the plate. Miyazaki, smiling shyly as he hands us beautiful things to eat, looks like a man in his element. Ichigo Ichie is his dream, he says later, a life goal up there with having a family.
The rice for the nigiri is wrapped in muslin in a round wooden box. Miyazaki squeezes the grains and passes them from one hand to the other, shaping the mouthful portion carefully before topping it with a piece of marinated tuna. Next there are barely solid slices of scallop, scorched only lightly with a blowtorch to leave them almost alive with rawness.
The nigiri is the simplest course, like one note before the symphony to follow, a feast laid out in beautiful Japanese characters on a menu, with an English translation on a larger sheet underneath.
In one of the dazzling plates Miyazaki has turned whiting into a powder and dusted it, like finely milled coconut, on a button-sized cured onsen egg yolk. It’s so much work for one magic tongue-lingering morsel. A cube of asparagus tofu is consomme made solid, all the freshness and urine-scenting green of asparagus in a wobble that’s trickier to chopstick up to your face than unset jelly. Thornhill duck is sliced rose-petal thin, with the gizzard a slightly darker, chewier petal on the plate, with a brassica mustard and a soy pulp. The smooth meat is offset by oniony strands of leek crisped into “hay”. There’s a dashi broth that tastes like liquid smoke with a parcel of daikon and crab with shards of sunny yellow yuzu citrus and a nasturtium leaf like a tiny lily pad.
The next dish, a plate of old fish, is the standout of the night. Miyazaki produces a wooden box with halibut he has been ageing for five days. He uses some salt and a static fridge – one that doesn’t blow air around the cooling compartment – to prevent the fish drying out. The result is something between a cure and a ferment, flavours deepened but never towards fishiness. There’s also fresh squid sliced into threads and served with an egg-yolk sauce, a mouth-filling bomb of savoury slipperiness.
After 12 courses I leave without leaden legs and the need to sleep it all off under a bridge
There’s ox tongue, tender as puppies’ tongues, with a glossy clear brown sauce made from new onions. Then a taste from the chef’s childhood, a steamed savoury custard, silky as panna cotta, with some scallop roe on top. Under the custard is a morsel of chicken thigh, chicken flavour squared by egg, all eaten with a wooden teaspoon. It is a nursery rhyme in food form. There’s seaweed from Drimoleague, channel wrack stirred through a sweetened rice bran with barely pickled radishes from west Co Cork, including the “ninja radish”, a purple one so vivid it looks as if it belongs in a comic book.
Dessert would be a slice of melon in Japan, “but I am in Ireland”, Miyazaki says, so it’s a pillowy rice gobstopper filled with coffee soy milk, chocolate and whiskey.
Twelve courses on I leave without leaden legs and the need to sleep it all off under a bridge. Instead it has been invigorating, a reminder of how magic food can be in the hands of a dreamer, a craftsperson and a flavour poet. There’s a waiting list to eat at Ichigo Ichie. It’s the most exciting new restaurant in the country.
The Miyabi chef’s kappou counter tasting menu for one, with hojicha tea and sparkling water, came to €103.50.
Verdict An education in island food
Facilities Worthy of their own review. There's a Japanese toilet. With all the bells and whistles
Food provenance Thornhill duck and Castletown Bere crab
Wheelchair access No
Music Speakeasy-style jazz
Vegetarian options Good