I recently visited Ireland with my husband and was blown away by its beauty and the friendliness of everyone we met. We stayed in Cork and quickly discovered that Ireland is a nation of foodies who are lucky enough to have some incredibly tasty ingredients grown on their doorstep. We found that we structured our day trips around what we were going to eat and where, pouring over restaurant reviews and Trip Advisor ratings. This was often done in pubs, with a pint of ale in hand. When we stumbled across The Franciscan Well, a pub with endless different ales on offer, we got a bit carried away one afternoon and both managed to achieve memory loss at dinner and found ourselves passed out in bed by about 9pm. Classy.
Our main reason for visiting Cork was so I could cash in my Christmas present from my husband who promised me a meal at Café Paradiso – arguably Ireland’s top vegetarian restaurant. Unlike the restaurant we had visited the previous night, the meal I had at Café Paradiso won’t be forgotten in a hurry. It was outstanding. And I don’t say that lightly. Going to vegetarian restaurants is always a real treat for me. As a result, I find that I’m sometimes routing for them to be so brilliant that I am sometimes a little disappointed when the dishes are not the unobtainable perfected standard I want them to be. But at Café Paradiso I, and my carnivore husband, enjoyed every mouthful.
Having said that, he ‘won’ with his starter choice with the beetroot, pickled rhubarb and chicory with salted walnuts, fennel, beet harissa and cashel blue cheese salad. I had the black bean, chocolate and chilli soup with avocado salsa, soured cream and a corn fritter, which was lovely, but I found my fork was drawn to his plate whenever his head was turned.
For my main course, I had roast aubergine parcels of spinach and knockalara sheep’s cheese with beet-braised beluga lentils, broad beans, miso gravy and crushed potato cake. It was one of those meals that I enjoyed so much, I was trying my hardest to take tiny mouthfuls so I could savour the experience. It was a rich and hearty dish full of earthy flavours. I’ve since bought some beluga lentils on my return and am looking forward to attempting to recreate the dish. My husband had pan-fried oyster mushrooms in cider butter on a braised cabbage parcel of roast celeriac, fennel and pecans with parsnip chips. His dish, in comparison to mine, had more delicate and subtle flavours. The cider butter and oyster mushrooms in particular were beautiful.
For desert, I had posh rhubarb and custard. The custard was set (pancetta style) with cardamom, and it was served with light and crumbly pistachio and orange shortbread.
The small bustling restaurant was packed to the rafters so if you go, make sure you book well in advance. The staff were warm and friendly, taking the time to direct us to yet another fantastic pub on our departure. After our meal, we were let out into the cool Cork air with full, satisfied stomachs, marvelling over how good the whole Café Paradiso experience had been.
The restaurant owner, Denis Cotter, is a bit of a figurehead in the vegetarian community. If you don’t have any of his recipe books, I suggest you buy one! They have recipes for great, everyday vegetarian cooking which use accessible ingredients as well as more adventurous ones. As a fan of Cotter and his recipes, I was a little worried that his restaurant couldn’t live up to the standard I had bestowed upon him, but it did. So the next time you are in Cork, be sure to book yourself into Café Paradiso and if a visit to Cork isn’t possible, there are always his books.