T here's woodsmoke in the night air making Cork city centre smell like an alpine village. A man sees me out for a run and utters a pure Cork comment as I pass him. "Sonia," is his one-word remark. I should have used it as my fake name when I run by Elbow Lane Brew and Smoke House and try to finagle a table for two for 8.30pm. They don't taking bookings so you have to present yourself habeus corpus style to get on the list. Name please? Err Rachel, I say unconvincingly. It's easier to lie by phone.
I get called Rachel roughly 15 times in the two subsequent phone calls we exchange before I actually get to sit down. The first call is to ask can I get there at 7.15pm. No. “I’ll sell that table so and give you a call back.”
He does and it’s a relief to settle into the corner table in this cave-like room. The oven in Elbow Lane is, I’m guessing, the source of that woodsmokey waft over Oliver Plunkett Street. The restaurant opened recently, a sister (or in this case hip younger brother) to the larger Market Lane next door. Its oven is modelled on New York chef Seamus Mullen’s West Village restaurant Tertulia. Inside the blue-tiled chimney breast there’s fire and griddles and irons and something that looks like the lid of a giant sandwich toaster that can be moved up and down to squash and sear and smoke. There’s a turning wheel at the front to control things, like the wheel on a child’s racing car.
It’s all very manly. And this is a manly L-shaped room. There’s a great polished concrete floor and dark greige walls are lit by the kitchen lights and candles. Paleo lighting, let’s call it. The room is narrower at the entrance so there’s a bottleneck between bar stools and high tables before you get to the roomier rear. It’s loud in a relaxed Friday night sort of way.
There’s a “nano” brewery here (which must mean it’s been squeezed into a broom cupboard) and I get a glass of Elbow Lane lager to kick off, anticipating a meaty, smokey blast of food for which I’m properly hungry.
The plate of the night is a mackerel main course. Two head- and tail-on whole fish arrive with their skin blackened and flayed crisp but the flesh underneath still soft and the pale ivory colour that tells you these were freshly caught and perfectly cooked. Mackerel doesn’t lie convincingly in the flesh. Any delay between sea and plate turns it fishier and oilier than it should be. Here it’s the real deal. It comes with a finely chopped salsa of tomatoes, onions and coriander.
The only thing missing is a flavour of smoke. But with fresh mackerel this good, maybe that’s no harm. The triple cooked chips are fine but the “Elbow seasoning” dusted over them includes a sugary crunch which is jarring.
The real Rachel has arrived and is also enjoying her main course, a fluffy butternut squash flan that has been charred almost black on the outside and is sweet and souffle-light inside. There’s a good kidney bean stew mix on shallots and a tasty tangle of coriander chutney.
Other dishes work less well. There’s a bowl of blood pudding: clumps of earthy brown pudding topped with a duck egg yolk that would have worked as a spill but has become a rubbery disc instead. I’d have liked more spring onions. They’ve been oiled and seared to ramp up their sweetness. Rachel’s smoked salmon is fine and has a great horseradish cream dressing on its rocket salad. This being a smokehouse I’d expect more bonfire robustness to the smokiness of the fish.
She loves her blackberry s’mores, which forgoes the cracker element of this American campfire classic to be a sugary blob of melted marshmallow laced with with fruit and chocolate. My blood orange and chocolate crumb is the only bum note of the night. There are some nice slices of blood orange but the crumb tastes like the leftovers that you tip out of the biscuit box and regret hoofing into your mouth when you realise they’re stale.
So Elbow Lane is fun and the food is worth the faff of getting a table. I’d like them to dial up the smoke so you get smoke on the plate as well as in the air. But that may well evolve as the chefs get the hang of the new kitchen kit.
Dinner for two with four glasses of lager and two teas came to €80. The verdict: 7.5/10 A cool room where you can eat good ingredients well cooked Facilities: Fine Music: Loud bass-heavy pop Food provenance: None Wheelchair access: Yes; space is tight Vegetarian options: Limited Second helping . . . In nearby Pembroke Street another sister restaurant, Orso, serves a great breakfast. The manoushi, a Middle Eastern flatbread (like a pizza base but chewier) gets topped with blood pudding, a poached egg, sweet onions, tomatoes, cheese and coriander for morning pleasure. I also ordered the banana flatbread – a delicious plate of lime zested cream folded into light flatbread, topped with chopped bananas, flaked almonds and cinnamon. Happy food in a lovely friendly little restaurant.
It’s difficult to resist the parting joke to these two Cork venues. This is obviously a restaurant group that knows its Orso from its Elbow. Breakfast, with a coffee, came to €13.30. Orso, 8 Pembroke Street, Cork, tel: 021-8000