A QUARTER OF A CENTURY AND
STILL ISAAC'S FEELS JUST RIGHT
48 McCurtain Street
Phone: 021 450 3805
Irish Daily Mail
28 January 2017
So, how long does it take a restaurant to become an institution, so woven into the warp and the weft of a community that it becomes hard to recall when it wasn’t there? Well, I suppose it depends. And, of course, there are restaurants that come and go and when they do go, are unmourned.
Isaac’s has been part of Cork for a quarter of a century and I recall that it established itself very rapidly as an essential part of the city. It was no mean achievement on the part of Michael Ryan and Canice Sharkey to pull this off.
Cork, despite scattered outbreaks of brilliance, is notoriously low on serious restaurants and the conservatism of much of the population (compared with, say, Galway) means that any restaurant venture has to tread a very careful line between the usual suspects and the kind of innovation and excitement that good chefs crave.
Whatever the formula may be, Isaac’s has it. It helps, of course, to have traces of the grand old Arbutus Lodge, one of the earliest places in the country to be starred by Michelin, in its DNA; it helps, too, that the restaurant occupies a lovely, high-ceilinged, bright room with excellent acoustics and that it recruits and retains cheerful staff who know what they are talking about. All in all, this restaurant is quite an achievement.
Our recent lunch there tells you a lot about the Isaac’s philosophy, particularly the sense of generosity (how many restaurants would be so generous with crabmeat, for example?)
There always seems to be a touch of nostalgia too. Deep-fried brie is straight out of the 1970s dinner party cookbook, a favourite with the housewives of Foxrock and Rochestown in the days before the yummy mummy had been invented. And it’s a cracking dish too; what’s not to like about molten cheese in a crisp exoskeleton of breadcrumbs?
But, of course, it has to be done perfectly and that’s how it was here. And while back in the day it would have been served with sweet cranberry sauce (or, it is whispered, occasionally with melted raspberry jam), Isaac’s served it with a a tomato and chilli combination described as a “jam” but, in fact, nicely tart and just the right foil to the richness of the brie. This all came with spanking fresh leaves, well dressed with good oil.
Our other starter was similar in that it too featured cheese, this time with Jane Murphy’s Ardsallagh goat’s cheese from just outside the city at Carrigtwohill. This was in the form of spheres, again breadcrumbed and deep-fried, served with a drizzle of pesto and good salad.
My main course was pure indulgence, justified by my being on a few hours’ respite from dieting. In a situation like that, and in a restaurant that I know and trust, when the word “hamburger” appears, my reaction is Pavlovian. I react like an old war horse getting a whiff of cordite.
I was offered all manner of relishes, ketchups, mayonnaise and what have you but I declined them all in favour of my generous, crusted beef patty, naked but for a lot of melted cheddar and bun from that other descendant of the old Arbutus Lodge, Declan Ryan’s Arbutus Breads up the hill in Mayfield.
The beef was still moist but cooked through, nicely crusty outside and had a flavour so deliciously deep that it bordered on gamey. A few dill pickles would have finished it perfectly (and I know I’m unusual in thinking this, as I am not acquainted with anyone else who actually likes the things). Proper hand cut chips and even more salad took up the rear.
Our other main course was, in fact, a starter “West Cork Crab Crumble”, a deep ramekin packed with white crab meat which had been enriched with cream and a little scallion, perfectly enhanced with that hard-to-handle herb, dill. The topping was a combination of fine bread crumbs, Parmesan and parsley. So simple, so thoughtful, so good.
We finished by sharing a chocolate Saint-Emillion. This has nothing to do with the red wine from Bordeaux and everything to do with the old Arbutus Lodge where chocolate was the richest seam when mining the classic dessert menu there in the good old days.
This is a small pot containing the densest, richest, most buttery, boozy dark chocolateyness that you can imagine. Some whipped cream on the side was all that it needed in terms of assistance.
With three glasses of wine, mineral water and two adequate coffees the bill came to €71.50.