Cheap eats is not about getting a soggy sandwich for €1, or living off tins of beans. It’s about getting value for money, whether that’s a €3 burger and chips offer in a takeaway or a €20 deal for an extraordinary lunch.
Cafe Paradiso, a vegetarian restaurant run by award winning chef and author Denis Cotter, isn’t exactly cheap. A starter might set you back anywhere from €10-13, while the mains are about €23-25. A few weeks ago, I went there with my regular dining companions Cat and Jimmy down in Cork for the early bird dinner. Two courses cost €24, while three courses will set you back €30.
Cat and Jimmy had gone for the early bird before and raved about it, while Cafe Paradiso has been on my list of restaurants to visit for some time. I’ve always associated vegetarian food with the type of fare you get in Cornucopia or Cafe Fresh – big, hearty, warming stews and curries full of chickpeas and carrots, or standard dishes like lasagna – so was expecting something similar.
Cafe Paradiso, however, takes a very different approach. Conveniently, we opted for three different starters and mains, and soon found that we’d have been equally happy with any of them. The portions look small, but they’re deceptive. All of us – especially my tiny-bellied friend Cat – left feeling full and satisfied.
The Cabbage, broccoli, and coconut soup with coriander and lime was sublime, with the stronger ingredients carefully balanced so as not to overwhelm the deliciously fresh vegetables. My nicely nutty Cashew falafel was perfectly accompanied by a powerfully fresh minted cucumber riata, while Cat’s Salad of roast beetroot with glazed pecans, cashel blue cheese and a balsamic dressing was deceptively simple and used nothing more than fine ingredients.
Our mains continued to throw the vegetarian rulebook – and cliches – out the window. Jimmy had a Couscous pilaf of purple sprouting broccoli, roast cherry tomatoes, broad beans and chickpeas with harissa sauce, chermoula (Algerian marinade), and lime-grilled haloumi cheese. I was inspired; couscous light but with bite and not a bit dry, as you’d often expect this grain to be. Cat’s risotto of sunchoke (a type of artichoke) and wild garlic with Oisin mature goat’s cheese and lemon-thyme oil was bursting with juicy flavours; the rice practically trickled down my throat. My own main, a Spiced aubergine gratin with spinach, crushed potatoes and (the outstanding) Bluebell Falls fresh goats cheese with a citrus cream and wilted cime di rapa (a type of broccoli), had me yet again questioning my views on vegetarian food. This was even more delicious than it looked, and made excellent use of simple, fresh ingredients to produce a complex dish of multiple tastes and textures.
The lemon tart was just a little too tart for my tastes, but the bitterness was well balanced by the accompanying praline ice-cream, which I can only equate to the sweet nectar of eternal joy and happiness. It was so ridiculously beautiful that we all forgot where we were.
The whole meal takes place in a very laid-back and pleasant cafe atmosphere, and the service was friendly, easy-going and very facilitating.
I know that the usual suspects might baulk at idea €24-30 for an early bird vegetarian dinner, but the level of care and attention that goes into these meals are second to none.
The fact that it’s a vegetarian restaurant quickly becomes irrelevant: Cafe Paradiso is simply one of the best restaurants in Ireland, end of. Creative, imaginative, and fresh, one meal in Cafe Paradiso will change the way you view vegetables forever – and surely eating less meat is a positive step to take? Much as I love Cafe Fresh, Cornucopia, and to a lesser extent Govinda’s, I wish Dublin had a vegetarian restaurant of this quality for an evening meal. Only one thing for it – I’ll have to go back to Cork again.
- Cafe Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork. Tel 021 4277 939 for reservations.
- Pre-theatre menu, Tuesday to Friday, 5.30pm to 7pm