Over a decade I have visited Sage more than most other restaurants. Conveniently located on my doorstep – slightly expanded – it has been fascinating to watch chef-owner Kevin Aherne’s culinary evolution, particularly as a locavore fanatic of the 12-Mile menu, when the pantry of his cooking stemmed almost entirely from this self-imposed limit.
Stays of this very successful culinary restriction (enhanced by the pursuit of Michelin fame) were eventually relaxed and Aherne’s cooking became less showy, relaxed, more concerned with flavor than accolade, and good for that, because he probably delivered the best food of his career.
He also began to expand as a restaurateur, steadily evolving the business model: adding the more casual Green Room, serving “snacks” and craft beers; and develop the courtyard into a splendid outdoor space.
But then the Covid came to town and tore up the hospitality regulations for everyone. Aherne was quick to respond, reorienting itself to offer a smart take-out offer, opening a delicatessen store, then branching out into retail with a new range of Sage2Go ready meals and miscellaneous products, now available in several outlets across the county.
The imposed lockdown may have hurt business at first, but it taught Aherne the true value of balancing family life and work commitments and, as the restaurant public expected regular changes on Aherne’s part, his next move was a real snowball.
At the end of October last year, he announced he was hanging up his chef’s apron and handing over the cooking to newcomer Darren Kennedy, a young Corkman who has built up a fine CV in six years working in London, including time at Chez Bruce and three years as head chef at the famous Brunswick House.
Returning to his native Cork several years ago, Kennedy took over as head chef at St Francis Provisions, Kinsale, and quickly garnered national attention and rave reviews.
It’s a good ‘fresh’ Friday night when Current Wife and I find ourselves in front of a restless and lively Sage, cheerful diners having a royal good time. The former “gourmet” dining room has “unbuttoned its collar, thrown away the tie”, getting rid of white linen and fancy crockery for a decidedly less formal, infinitely more down-to-earth look. Moorish style symmetrical star patterned tiles are present in various places throughout the room, complemented by a selection of tasteful prints on the walls.
We start with three snacks. Fried Chicken Crumpet features Japanese-style karaage fried chicken, tender meat, perfectly crispy coating, drizzled with tangy fermented chili sauce. It sits on a plump, fluffy little crumpet and is topped with fresh cream, lumpfish roe and a grater of Young Buck blue cheese. All in all, a powerful piece spanning the flavor spectrum. Mackerel Bhajis continues in this vein: crispy breaded fish, also sporting a nice touch of chilli, the sting softened with cilantro and mint chutney and a creamy coat of melty grated Ballinrostig gouda.
A local Rossmore oyster is served with more of that fruity tangy sauce and crispy, incredibly addictive house scampi fries. All three crack small bites, though it might also be worth offering a less fiery alternative, other than homemade bread and butter, to those who aren’t completely signed up for chilli monsters. There are no complaints, however, from our neighborhood.
The starters proper begin with meaty, chewy and savory candied leeks, squatting proudly on a simple, textured ajo blanco, a denser version of the classic Spanish ‘white gazpacho’ (comprised of bread, almonds, garlic and olive oil). Roasted hazelnuts and nameko mushrooms round out the palette of textures and flavors, and all it needs is a glass of crunchy hazelnut Amontillado sherry to wash it all down.
Best of all, the smoked beef tartare, Black Angus/Hereford cross from Frank Murphy Butchers in Midleton, aged on site then served as a classic raw beef tartare, a soft and tender meat topped with tangy sour aioli, crisps of Artichoke and shavings from superb Shepherd’s Store.
CW’s main course is cod, crispy on the skin side, meaty flesh, sliding like glaciers in glistening slabs. The accompanying flavors and textures are not for the faint hearted: brine, rich seaweed butter sauce, meaty mussels, white asparagus, crispy cod croquette and topped with katsuobushi (smoked dried bonito) flakes, shivering and squirming in the rising heat of the dish like those polymer fortune-say fish in Christmas crackers.
If you detect a theme, that Kennedy is not a shrinking violet in the kitchen, rather a fan of bold, forward-thinking flavors, then that’s further confirmed with a sublimely cooked barbecue pork: three perfect slices of the saddle of free course of Darren Allen; fat rendered to a dissolution close to butter; meat pink, tender, slightly carrying a slightly pungent and woody smoke.
Roasted fennel, hazelnut Beluga lentils and deliciously sweet yet tangy applesauce round out a hugely satisfying and deliciously comforting dish. Excellent potatoes with pink fir potatoes on the side are simply beyond us, packaged to take home, and childcare limitations see us adding desserts to the same package.
As a result, Rice Pudding, Rhubarb, Pistachio and a Beamish Tiramisu will not be subject to the same critical rigor as if they were served in-house; suffice to say that having survived the half hour back in a box, they still present as extremely enjoyable, the tiramisu, particularly good, the bitter tangy notes of the stout harmonizing with the cocoa of the chocolate.
It’s still early days for Kennedy in his new role, but in this form his promise is more than marked, a deceptively laid-back style and simple, unassuming delivery understating an overbearing hand when it comes to wielding flavor. and texture. He uses his local pantry wisely, sourcing well and applying notes of sparkling grace from other cuisines, all resulting in very delicious food on the plate – a most worthy ‘heir’ indeed.
Tab: €156.25 (drinks and wine included, excluding tip)
- The Court, Main St, Midleton, Co. Cork
- Such. (021) 463 9682
- Opening hours: Wed/Thu, 5pm-9pm; Fri/Sat, 4pm-10pm; Sun, 12.30pm-8pm