Stef Hans Café
The Source Arts Centre
Co. Tipperary
Phone: 0504 58858

Irish Daily Mail
25 June 2016

The fact that Tipperary is so good on food has much to do with the land. The Golden Vale is aptly named. This part of Ireland produces some of the best meat in the country and, thanks to the Crowes in Dundrum, most of our free range pork.

But the county is also a quite a culinary cluster thanks to one family, the Matthias. Hans-Peter opened Chez Hans way back in 1968 in an old church below the rock of Cashel and also in a gesture of great faith.

Ireland in 1968 was not exactly receptive to proper restaurants; only the year before, Jammet’s, which had survived the 1916 rebellion, the Civil War and what we quaintly called “The Emergency” of 1939-45, closed for good. The building then became a Berni Inn, part of a chain that democratised the notion of eating out in post-war Britain, thus adding a little to the sum of human happiness if not to the culture of gastronomy.

Chez Hans is still going strong in the hands of the next generation and it is one of Ireland’s great restaurants, producing food of great finesse, locally rooted, classical but with delightful twists. Just next door is Café Hans where tourists gorge on vast and wonderful sandwiches but which is, in fact, one of the country’s best bistros.

Some restaurants – not a lot of them, to be honest – convey a huge sense of caring. Caring about the customer and about what goes on the plate. They don’t source by price, they do things properly, their deliveries from the big food service companies are small. (Some restaurants get everything from the back of one of those trucks. It’s all part of something that the industry calls “de-skilling the kitchen”; it saves a lot of money and results in rubbish food).

Chez Hans, Café Hans and now Stef Hans Café in Thurles all share a potent sense of caring. This light-filled restaurant, run by Stefan Matthia and Ruth Mulhern, is part of a lovely very modern arts centre by the river in the centre of Thurles. It’s a gem, a great discovery and it cheered us up on a rainy Summer day.

Actually, it did more than that. It inspired us to wonder why more country towns don’t have somewhere to eat like Stef Hans Café. That’s a big question and there are many factors but the key thing is back to caring. Not enough – not nearly enough – people care enough to do something like this.

It’s significant that Stef Hans Café get their small and constantly changing wine selection from Le Caveau in Kilkenny where Pascal Rossignol meticulously selects from small producers, many of them “natural” producers. Their Le Caveau contact is Colm McCan, a Tipperary man best known as the sommelier at Ballymaloe. Attention to detail again.

Smoked sea trout is every bit as good as smoked salmon and it has a further benefit: it’s wild, not farmed. Stef Hans Café’s version comes from Duncannon in Co. Wexford and it has a lovely firm texture (a combination of careful salting and not being farmed, I’m guessing) and a carefully judged seasoning of smoke.

We chose to pass on the classic accompaniment of potato salad and instead had a spicy slaw that combined good crunch and quite a kick of chilli heat. Its sharpness, too, made it an excellent foil for the fish.

Cod came in two forms: straight, cooked on the pan until just á point and some of it breadcrumbed and deep-fried. To be honest, I would have been perfectly happy with just the former.

Fresh, just cooked and sitting on a perch of French beans and young carrot slices, impeccably seasoned, this was a fish as it should be: taking centre strage, subtly supported by the veg, allowed to speak for itself.

Puddings were exceptional. A confection of super-ripe strawberries, cream and an intense sort of passionfruit custard, served in a glass, was a triumph, substantial yet light, tasting of Summer.

Strawberries appeared in a supporting role with a remarkably light and delicate nougatine parfait which was encased in fragments of those funny little tube-like wafery biscuits, the name of which I can never remember. This was a dessert to conjure with, tasting of so much more than the sum of its parts.

With mineral water and good coffee, the bill came to €50.

It’s worth remembering, by the way, that Thurles is very close to the M7 if you happen to be going up or down that thoroughfare.