Friday, January 27, 2012

Birthdays: the pleasures and the headaches

I must be getting old. I had intended to post this review on Monday but having celebrated my birthday in Cork on Saturday and again with friends in Dingle on Monday (the actual day of my birthday), I've been suffering the consequences ever since. My head has only just recovered to the point where I can devote attention to anything other than the most urgent of work. Has anyone else noticed that pounding hangovers seem to be a hallmark of a good night out once you turn thirty?

But birthdays do have to be celebrated, don't they? And I celebrated mine in style with a meal in one of Cork's finest restaurants, Augustine's. I'd never been before but I'd heard great things and had very high expectations.

So, were those expectations met? It all started well when we were greeted by the friendly, professional staff. All smiles and courtesy, they were to be totally attentive for the entire evening.

The menu boded well too. It was short with a choice of five starters, mains and desserts. It featured carefully-chosen local produce, some of it from the nearby English market, some from local farmers and food producers and some foraged from the countryside that surrounds the city.

Our first taste of the kitchen's food was also impressive. An amuse bouche of pea and chilli soup was savoury with a touch of sweetness, had great depth of flavour and the high note of chilli set the whole thing off perfectly.

My starter was a revelation too. A dish of scallops with a celeriac purée, ham croquettes, apple slices and toasted oats; it was a traditional combination of flavours with a twist. The scallops were dense and rich. The celeriac had a creamy, savoury depth. The croquettes added saltiness and the apple sweetness. Topping all of this off were the toasted and slightly caramelised oats which had a crunchiness and flavour that seemed to intensify all of the other elements of the dish. Ten out of ten.

(Please forgive the quality of the photos; it was really dark.)

My boyfriend had the terrine of English Market ham hock, pistachios and dried cranberry, a quail Scotch egg, apple membreo and an onion and thyme brioche. The apple membreo (which I'd never heard of before) was a sticky sweet reduction of apple which I adored. Judging from the smile he had on his face while eating the rest of the dish, I'm guessing that he liked it too.

So far, so good. Now time for the main courses. I had pan-fried halibut with celeriac remoulade, truffle aoili, toasted hazelnuts and confit chicken wings.

Every single element of this dish was great. The hake was perfectly cooked; its crispy skin yielding to flaky fish. The chicken was tender and paired perfectly with mushrooms and truffle aioli. The remoulade was creamy and sharp. But taken together, I didn't think these elements worked. They just didn't combine to create the excitement that the best dishes do.

My boyfriend continued his pork theme for the evening and chose braised belly of Timoleague Pork and pan roast dodine of prune stuffed tender loin with root vegetable gratin and star anise.

This was a dish of traditional flavours using high quality ingredients that really couldn't be faulted. Yum!

Before I tell you what we had for dessert, I'm going to ask you something: do you think there's a problem with desserts in Ireland? I've found that even the best kitchens often let themselves down when it comes to the sweet course and it's got to the stage where I often skip dessert altogether if I'm eating out.

 Unfortunately, that was the case here. I ordered the delice of chocolate with salted caramel and raspberry sorbet (if I do have dessert, it has to be chocolate!). Because the staff knew it was my birthday, they served it with a sparkler on top. This was a lovely touch that was typical of the level of attention we received all night long.

Here's a cheesy picture of me with my dessert:

It looks yummy, doesn't it? And some of it was too...
The salted caramel was good. So was the raspberry sorbet, with its balance of sharp and sweet. But the delice - the heart of the dessert - was a disappointment. It lacked sweetness and there was something slightly oily about it that I found unpleasant.

My boyfriend ordered the tarte tatin because he loves tarte tatin.
I don't have a picture of it and there are two possible reasons for this. One is that the wine had gone to my head and I completely forgot, which sounds totally plausible. The other is that we forgot because we were so disappointed, which unfortunately is just as plausible.

Don't get me wrong: his dessert was nice and he enjoyed it but it simply wasn't a tarte tatin. Anyone who has eaten tarte tatin will testify that it is a thing of caramelised, chewy wonder where the apples are cooked in a caramel sauce that has almost turned to toffee and the base is a buttery, puffy and delicious pastry.

The pastry here was good but there was no chewiness. There was no toffee. In fact, there wasn't any caramel at all. It was almost like an apple turnover of sorts. Whatever it was, it was not a tarte tatin. The vanilla ice cream it was served with was fabulously rich and studded with real vanilla though.

So, my dinner at Augustine's had both high points and low. Would I go again? Certainly. Would my expectations be as high? Probably not...

The bill came to €132 for three courses for two people, including one bottle of wine and two bottles of sparkling water.

Augustine's Restaurant,
The Clarion Hotel,
Lapp's Quay,
Cork City

Tel: 021 4279375

Opening Hours
Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm with availability 7 days a week for private functions.  


  1. Happy Birthday Sharon.

    Thanks for the review - I'm a dessert skipper too, for the same reason.

    Next time you're in Dublin take your boyfriend to Le Maison (behind Powerscourt) for their tart tatin - it's actually for two but my husband eats a whole one on his own!!

  2. Thanks for the birthday wishes. And La Maison is now on my list of places to go in Dublin. I don't think my boyfriend will need any encouragement to eat a whole tarte tatin on his own - he loves them!