It's a jaded old soul who could ever tire of the magical frisson that comes with entering the closed-in alleyway that leads up to the entrance of Greene's Restaurant. Behind is the once genteel MacCurtain St, these days hostage to an endless and abrasive torrent of grimy traffic, yet beyond the wrought iron gate, all disappears to be replaced by the soothing Zen simplicity of this inner city Shangri-La. No self-respecting Shangri-La can be without a water feature and at Greene's it's a veritable showstopper, tumbling down a natural rockface from several stories above into a limpid pool. Lit up at night, several al fresco tables, judiciously placed, become one of the hottest tickets in town on especially clement nights and, with Greene's newly licenced as a venue for civil marriage ceremonies, it's a most romantic location for lovelorn couples to plight a spot of troth. It’s summer in Ireland though so we are perfectly happy to make do with the next best thing: an interior table, directly alongside the window looking out onto this hidden paradise.
The Cork culinary scene has weathered the recessionary storm much like any other city or town outside metropolitan Dublin: by battening down the hatches and waiting for the worst to blow over. This has seen the local restaurants play a cautious, conservative hand with little appetite for any high jinks or outré experimentation at the fine dining end. Until the arrival of chef Bryan McCarthy, Greene's was no different; some excellent chefs through the years but all cleaving to a mainstream rendition of classical/bistro cooking with an Irish accent but McCarthy is part of a new breed of up and coming chefs determined to be part of the burgeoning contemporary Irish cuisine with its primary emphasis on using premium Irish produce over inferior imported substitutes. The interior has benefited from a recent overhaul and owner Richard Evans has also begun to convert a delightful little enclosed outdoor space at the opposite end of the dining room, further adding to the restaurant’s armoury.
We commence with a splendid old-fashioned welcome from accomplished Maitre D' Mounir and at his insistence, Dearly Beloved (DB) overcomes an (inexplicable!) apathy to strawberries to enjoy a deliciously refreshing pre-prandial vodka-based cocktail with plenty of fresh strawberries while this old warhorse makes do with a rather more prosaic pint of porter.
After appraising a basket of very good in-house breads, including a wonderful nutty multigrain, we commence the eating proper. DB's starter of Pan-Fried Castletownbere Scallops with Textures of Cauliflower, Marinated Raisins, Granny Smith Apple, Toasted Sesame Seeds (€13.90) is first up and while such a large cast of supporting players may seem excessive for the innate simplicity of lovely scallops, perfectly cooked, each adds to the overall dish, drawing out sweetness, adding counterbalancing tartness and texture.
Having just promoted McCarthy as a keen user of local produce, Iberico Corn-fed Ham might seem a foreign body rather out of place but McCarthy is no locavore fascist. Furthermore, his sous chef Veronica, who hails from Spain, is always keen to encourage a little Iberian seasoning on the menu and this delicious salty-sweet ham, translucent and tingling on the tongue is well-matched by smoked almonds and pea shoots, pea puree, Beara Blue Cheese and broad beans, a complex little arrangement yet immaculately woven together and sublimely balanced.
DB enjoys a well-cooked piece of turbot with a comforting pea puree and some Ballyhoura mushrooms for a little umami depth, an unfussy but very decent dish. My Tomahawk steak, on the other hand, is rather more of a challenge. Excellent Dexter Beef from the North Cork organic Real Meat Co-operative, it is a superlative slab of meat cooked to perfection and, though so rare it is almost still lowing in the field, it melts on the tongue like butter. Carrots, mushrooms and wilted greens are all fine companions but the problem I have is one of volume for the steak is the size of a small country. (Ever before I take a bite, I slice off a suitable portion and push the rest aside for the doggy bag and, no kidding, braise it the next day to provide an ample meal for myself and two hungry children with a grand bone for the dog!) A slice of grilled paneer from McCarthy's Natural Dairies atop this meat mountain also works but this plate is already protein-packed and a near insurmountable task for a body attempting the full three courses.
A marriage counsellor would have a field day with my relatively belated discovery of DB's rather tepid relationship with the strawberry, especially as it is one of the fruits we do best in this country, a truly world-class affair. The strawberry cocktail has already begun the evangelical process but I push her further, specifically, towards a strawberry-themed dessert, most especially as it features Dave Bushby's superb strawberries, from Rosscarbery, in West Cork. With variations on the theme including meringue and ice cream alongside plump fresh berries bursting with juice, hovering right on the cusp of where sweetness might topple over into a tart sourness, the conversion project progresses very nicely indeed and DB leaves nothing behind. I dabble with a malted milk crumble with vanilla cream; it is lovely but unfortunately after my Desperate Dan-like struggle with Godzilla the Cow, one course earlier, I am rather done with eating for the evening and mark it down for the next visit.
Service, as always, is excellent and it is only when the babysitter's meter threatens to run into the treble digits that we reluctantly prise ourselves from our seats to head home. Greene’s has been around for 20-plus years and still retains that comforting old magic but the alchemy being practiced in McCarthy’s kitchen has this venerable institution entering an entirely new culinary realm.