Irish cuisine is thought, by most, to consist of rich and hearty fare of the meat and potatoes variety. What is not widely known is that County Cork is actively positioning itself as the "Food Capital of Ireland". Much to the delight of local foodies, international cuisine is slowly making its way into the heart of the region. Fresh food and creative cooking are popping up everywhere, even on university campuses.
The UCC (University College Cork) campus holds more than classrooms. The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, besides supporting the visual arts, houses the Fresco Eaterie & Bistro. Specialties include Asian fusion, Cajun and creole, and Thai cuisines, among others. Despite being downstairs from the gallery, which is built into a hill, the space is light and open with a lovely view of grass, trees, and a branch of the River Lee.
At a recent event held at the bistro, visitors were treated to bite-sized portions of several menu items, as well as wine, both red and white, and champagne with strawberries. I was there with an Irish friend and our tastes and favorites varied widely. He was quite enamored of the salmon and cod "cake": layers of fish wrapped in Swiss chard, presented like a slice of layer cake, served with fennel salad and wasabi caviar. We both enjoyed the duck bon bon, similar to a dumpling or potsticker, with shitake mushroom sauce. My favorite, however, was the mini burger. I felt a bit defensive about this, being an American, but the quality of meat and flavorful sauces really made it a treat.
As we left the event, we stopped to chat up the chef, Kash. It turns out he is originally from Malaysia and started his culinary career in Kuala Lampur. He says that Malaysians have a very food-centric culture. Among his group of friends, whenever someone would earn money, the first question was always, "What can we eat?!"
According to Kash's website, he has cooked for celebrities and royalty. He's been head chef at several hotels and restaurants in both Malaysia and Ireland. Furthermore, he "…[made it to] the finals of the All Ireland Chef of the Year in year 2001 and 2005. His culinary skills have been recognized by a number of prestigious awards, which includes several gold, silver and bronze medals… in the United Kingdom."
Kash invited me to come back the following week and sample some of the dishes not on the gala menu that night. I brought along a friend, which ended up being a good thing, because we were both stuffed by the end of the meal. Kash was not exaggerating when he said Malaysian people are generous with food!
Remembering how my tastes differed from those of my friend the previous week, I wondered how much adjustment to the recipes was made to accommodate Irish palates. In some cases it's difficult to tell what has been changed for the customer and what is the chef's personal preference. Due to the spiciness of some of the dishes, I am guessing most of it leaned toward culinary creativity.
We began with a Moroccan-style soup with lamb. In this case, Kash confessed the lamb was added because most of his customers would not appreciate a purely bean and vegetable based dish. He even thickened the broth a bit to make it more stew-like and appealing to Irish sensibilities.
My favorite dish followed shortly after: teriyaki of salmon (pictured above). You can get most of my favorite foods in Cork, including Mexican food, though there is a distinct lack of good Japanese restaurants. I hadn't realized how much I missed the way Seattle has a teriyaki joint on every corner until I tasted the salmon. It's thinly sliced, marinated for 12 hours, and cooked quicky to caramelize the sauce – heaven!
We sampled a red curry that had a lovely presentation, but was more peppery than rich. My preference is for creamy curries with lots of yogurt or coconut milk, so this was not my favorite. However, unlike most of the "Indian" restaurants in Cork, they do hand grind the spices here. No sauces from a jar at Fresco!
Next was a Thai beef salad that was delicious, but extremely spicy. In the US I was pretty firmly in the middle zone between friends who could drink chili smoothies all day long and those who started to sweat just looking at nachos on a menu. My tolerance for spice has somewhat dimmed since moving to Europe, so take this warning with a grain of salt (so to speak). I imagine Thai and Malaysian people would get a good chuckle out of what I consider hot these days, but the restaurant is in Ireland!
Kash was particularly proud of the quiche (pictured, right). He insisted that I take a photo which highlighted the hearty ingredients, not the least of which are sections of hard boiled eggs. It was indeed tasty and included black olives, spinach, rainbow chard, roasted red peppers, Parmesan cheese, and pesto.
We finished with another fish dish: hake in saffron sauce. I confess I was so full by that point that I was unable to finish it. It was, however, nicely presented and delicious.
It is worth noting that the salads are all fresh and composed of quality ingredients. While not true of all restaurants in Cork, there is a tendency to throw pre-cut iceberg lettuce and sad looking tomatoes in a bowl and declare it "salad!" At Fresco Bistro the salads are mixed greens freshly topped with a light dressing. They look well and taste alive, the way a salad should be.
The staff at the restaurant are pleasant and helpful. At the gala, I asked Eoin, one of the servers, about how he came to work there. Here is what he had to say:
"I am a Masters of Science student in UCC and have been studying there for the the last two years. I have also been working with my faculty department on a part-time basis since last October so I spend a lot of time on campus. I heard about Fresco through word of mouth on campus and began to have lunch there. I was increasingly frustrated with having to buy pre-packed sandwiches for lunch, which including coffee was costing far more than it was worth. As a 'foodie' myself I was delighted with the options offered by Fresco which were tasty, reasonably priced and made with locally sourced ingredients. When I found out through a friend that they were hiring in April I applied for and got a job there, and have eaten like a king ever since."
A ringing endorsement, if ever there was one!
On my second visit to Fresco there was no room for dessert. The night of the party, however, there were two (pictured above). The first was sago pudding infused with screw pine, sweetened coconut milk and creamed corn. The second was rose petal glutinous rice with with egg and coconut jam. I am hard pressed to choose a favorite, as both were delightful.
According to Eoin, there is always something new and creative being offered by Fresco. The prices are reasonable, the food wonderfully fresh, and the setting tranquil but chic.
Despite being located on the UCC campus, the restaurant is not just for students and faculty. I recommend taking a stroll along the north side of the River Lee from the city center, crossing the Mardyke Bridge, and heading through the gates of UCC. Visit the Lewis Glucksman Gallery to stimulate your creativity and Fresco Eatery & Bistro to stimulate your taste buds.
Mon – Fri: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sat: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Gluten-free and vegetarian items available.
For more information visit the Lewis Glucksman Gallery website.