Everyone in Ireland agrees that Cork, the largest county and the one farthest to the south, sets the most sumptuous table on the Emerald Isle. From its farms, rivers, and ovens come butter and milk of almost biblical goodness, cheeses to silence French snobs, beautiful fish, scones and jams sweet enough to make the English commute. Much of this regional bounty is on display at the Covered Market—a.k.a. the Old English Market—in Cork city; but don't expect some folkloric bazaar lost in a time warp. Here, under a grand vaulted ceiling, such vernacular foodstuffs as crubeens (pig's feet) and phantasmagoric innards sit cheek by jowl with fromage from the Auvergne, chic Tuscan oils, and Middle Eastern spices.
Jacobs on the Mall restaurant, only a few steps from the market, delivers a similarly modern blend of homegrown and worldly. The soaring room, converted from an old Turkish bathhouse, would turn heads even in London. But in London you don't often see businessmen with ties loosened, shirtsleeves rolled up, jackets draped over jazzy red chairs, attacking lunch as though it were their last meal.
Mercy Fenton's food invites such abandon. One of the country's most lauded young chefs, she packs natural flavor into dishes that are Tuscan in their minimalism and Burgundian in their lushness. To start, she might serve satiny rabbit rillettes with dried apricots and an airy slice of toasted brioche. It's a Gallic dish with a Gaelic soul. Or you might choose a salad of peppery arugula, warm seared duck livers, back-bacon lardons, and a cool, sweet accent of grapes—a straightforward yet elegant combination that sings.
Fenton's main courses could spark philosophical debates about the mysterious extra dimension that turns a dish seemingly devoid of artifice into a magnetic meal that lingers in memory, maybe for years. And we're only talking roast salmon and green beans in garlicky parsley sauce; plaice and mashed potatoes; a chicken-leg confit with buttered baby beets. "Look after your ingredients, and they'll look after you" is Fenton's motto. But, unlike Alice Waters, she doesn't demand that you worship her organic carrot. It's enough for you simply to roll up your sleeves and tuck in.
My mouth still sweet from Fenton's blueberry-and-lemon trifle, I headed east to Youghal, a provincial walled town at the mouth of the Blackwater River. Youghal is known for its buzzing waterfront promenade, a historical connection with Sir Walter Raleigh, and the 13th-century St. Mary's Collegiate Church, which stands a stone's throw from the Jacobean pile once inhabited by the famous courtier and pirate. The town's greatest attraction, however, might be Aherne's Seafood Restaurant, where three generations of the Fitzgibbon family have wooed seafood devotees for more than 30 years. Aherne's started life as a bar; its busy front pub still offers up mean pints, oysters and mussels, and a wickedly rich potato and salmon gratin. The stately main restaurant is more formal, decorated with an ur-Irish color scheme (salmon pink and Granny Smith green), forgettable art, and lots of different lamps.
But these details faded as soon as dinner arrived. During this meal, all my past seafood epiphanies came swimming to mind: I recalled the goose barnacles of Galicia, Singapore chili crab, Tasmanian Coffin Bay scallops, the ceviches of Lima. Aherne's catch belonged in that pantheon. This I knew as soon as I dipped my fork into a mammoth platter groaning with salmon and haddock, swordfish and plaice, with oysters, langoustines, mussels, and crab—all of astonishing quality, cooked with respect, and served simply with butter on the side. Knowing that I'd pay three times more in the Mediterranean for stuff half as good was a delicious thought. And that was before I encountered the lobster, a 2 1/2-pound whopper with the most succulent flesh I've ever tasted. What more could one ask for?(Except perhaps a modestly priced New Zealand or Alsatian wine, plus endless helpings of the smooth carrot purée "with good butter and cream to it," as the waitress said proudly.)
After this feast, the ebullient Fitzgibbons won't send you wandering into the night. A few years ago, the family added a 12-room hotel that's plush enough to be listed in Ireland's prestigious Blue Book. They'll even ply you with more fish for breakfast.
Shh . . . If Kilgraney isn't on the Irish gourmet country-house circuit, it's because certain young Dublin sophisticates are keeping this County Carlow retreat all to themselves. Kilgraney's setting is so perfectly Irish—five acres of velvety green hugging a Georgian farmhouse, with its carefully tended patches of romantic decay—that the essence of Amanresorts drifting through the house takes you by surprise. (Get used to it. Owners Bryan Leech and Martin Marley lived in Southeast Asia; they cook with cilantro and lemongrass and decorate with Burmese wall hangings, Sri Lankan saris, and Philippine wood carvings.)
Each of the inn's six rooms and suites is spiced with discreet world-beat accents and presents a lesson in minimalist grace. The arrangements are so fastidious that you feel like a guest at an interior designer's private house. (Not a place to toss your socks on the floor.) This feeling stays with you during candlelit dinners taken around a gleaming rectangle of local black limestone supported by antique legs. You might have to restrain yourself from helping your hosts with the dishes or constantly lavishing praise on their vividly flavored cream of tomato and fennel soup, their collection of wooden polychrome putti, or the striking shade of their dining room walls (it matches the Grenache-Syrah blend in your glass).
You'll want to invite your gracious hosts for an evening in your own country house—once you've finally repainted the porch. But you would need to rent a sous-chef from Jean-Georges Vongerichten to compete with Bryan and Martin's designer arrangement of lettuces next to pink slices of their famous hot-smoked salmon (from River Slaney, where Bryan's mum lives); the intriguingly spiced eggplant terrine wrapped in a lacy Asian omelette; the chili-stuffed pork loin in a gingered sun-dried mango sauce. It's the vegetables that ground you in Ireland: waxy potatoes, gleaming marble-sized beets, sugary snap peas, all gathered right before dinner.
Over chocolate star-anise mousse cake, Bryan tells of his Speckled Marran hens, which lay eggs with yolks so improbably orange he doesn't dare use them in desserts ("The guests will suspect artificial coloring!"), and laments the passing of his favorite rooster, lost in the prime of his life to a fox. You might want to send him a condolence note, except it could never be quite stylish enough.