Review: Sage Restaurant, Cork gets high marks for local food

Sage advice in Cork: eat local. A delicious tribute to the folk that grow, harvest, or produce fine ingredients in Midleton’s hinterland

   
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Sage Restaurant

  • The Courtyard, 8 Main Street
  • (021) 4639682
  • Irish

Pity the poor bronze boy in Midleton. He’s being chased across the grass in the east Cork town by furious bronze geese, his shirt tail gripped forever in an angry beak. The patch used to be known as Goose’s Acre, in a proprietorial sense –you didn’t step onto it unless you were willing to tangle with a goose, a woman tells me. The real birds went to chase children in the great petting zoo in the sky long ago. Otherwise chef Kevin Aherne would have been eyeing them up for his menu.

Goose’s Acre is well within the 12-mile radius that Aherne has set as the area in which he wants to source what appears on plates in Sage Restaurant. The kind stranger who tells the goose story walks me to the door when I ask for directions. “I’ve never been, but I hear it’s wonderful,” she says. The sun is hot and it all feels like a Fáilte Ireland ad. I’m only sorry I didn’t ask her to join me.

Lunch sittings can see some kitchens’ engines set to idle with all eyes on dinner when more wine will be drunk and bills will be higher. But there’s a whole-hearted approach to ingredients that you can look up their 12-mile meal movie on Vimeo. It’s lovely, if a little on the long side. Twelve minutes might have been better. But you get the idea. They don’t seem to be in the business of slapping things out.

Sage is in a hodgepodge of old and new buildings in a courtyard set back off the main street. A backyard pig or two probably lived here in the days when geese terrorised the townsfolk.

There are lots of doors and the first one leads into the small, busy Greenroom cafe space. The restaurant across the hall is emptier. Inside there are Swedish-sauna quantities of timber in the decor, and olive green walls, lightened by a meet-your-lunch array of pictures of farmers, bee-keepers and fishermen.

Smiling farmers leaning on gates are standard marketing images for supermarkets and fast-food chains. They take on an Orwellian tinge alongside stories of how the giants can quietly grind farmers’ margins into the ground. Real reverence for ingredients is one thing. But to convince everyone that a human connection is one of the best bits that can go into food you have to make that food really delicious.

And Aherne does just that. There are butter-fried baby leeks (so teeny they’re more like scallions with ambitions). They sit on a pea sauce that’s been made with a rich chicken base but still tastes of fresh peas. There are curls of gently-pickled golden beet slices and a couple of radish slices, their crunch softened and pepperiness sweetened with a succinct bit of cooking. Two sausage-shaped fried and breaded croquettes are perched on top of the line of lovely food. Inside there is a smoked cheese so smokey you’re searching for the bacon that your taste buds think must be hidden there.

Beside me, two generations of women are swooning over their lunch. They spend the whole time talking about how good things are and how much they’re enjoying the food.

Next up is a plate of hake fried with a crispy egg. The fish has been pin-boned so there’s nothing but soft, gorgeous flesh and crispy, salted skin. It’s on a puddle of bearnaise that’s soft yolk runny, rather than mayonnaise-thick. The crispy egg has a feathery coat instead of the lagging jacket this chef classic can come with. The yolk flows out to join the bearnaise like a stream running to a river. Tiny yellow cherry tomatoes have been given a light roasting to sweeten them, red ones are just halved and served. This is a kitchen that’s tasting things when they arrive and letting that dictate the next step. There’s a pot of the freshest mizuna leaves and edible flowers.

The peppery kicks are sweetened with lightly-cooked shallots and a honey dressing. I hope it’s Bridie and Charlie Terry’s honey – they have the best punchline of the 12-mile film. Charlie talks about how he married Bridie 36 years ago and she brought the bees with her: “It’s a love triangle, Bridie, me and the bees.” The only duff note in the dish are some rounds of chorizo fried so rock hard that they get left on the plate for fear of cracking a molar.

The blackberry trifle with lemon curd listed on the menu has morphed into a kind of plum crumble-trifle (a new dessert I’m calling a trimble) involving a custard studded with tiny chunks of apple. And hang on a goose-chasing minute – east Cork doesn’t do lemons unless the Indian summer has really outdone itself. But that’s mean-spirited. Sage is a lot more than a puritanical treatise on localism. It’s a fittingly delicious tribute to the people on the wall who grew or harvested or produced the ingredients on your plate. You can genuflect to them as you leave this special place, with a very happy smile on your face.

Lunch for one, with a raspberry cordial and a coffee, came to €36.35

THE VERDICT: 8.5/10 Local food with finesse

Facilities: Fine

Music: Nice

Food provenance: Top notch but, surprisingly, no one named on the menu

Wheelchair access: Yes

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