I had been very much looking forward to visiting Richard Corrigan’s Park Café for some time, until slowly at first and then all at once, I was not. A drowsy flick through notifications on my phone brought the news from my editor – that a number of (now) ex-employees had come forward to detail a litany of alleged workplace abuses to The Irish Times.
A needle scratch across my Sunday morning. My Wednesday reservation would now be undertaken with something resembling duty rather than relish. Billed (by himself and the media) as a triumphal return of the native, the restaurant had opened in the former Shelbourne Social space in late November. A procession of reviewers had subsequently lined up to kiss the ring. He was back with a bang it seemed. No stranger to bloviation, Corrigan has been blowing his own trumpet with the gusto of a young Miles Davis for decades now. Indeed legend has it that if weather conditions align just right it is possible, standing on Howth Head, to hear him gassing about butter or turf all the way from Piccadilly.
Whether you care for his larger than life/full fat persona it is generally agreed that he is a man who knows how to successfully run restaurants and manage people, which makes the nature of the allegations so confounding. To lose two or three members of staff as a young restaurant working out the kinks is understandable, if unfortunate. To lose 14 is the stuff of ferry disasters. It needs to be said that all allegations have been stoutly refuted, with Corrigan himself doubling down with a couple of ill-advised late-night digital interventions. Nevertheless, allegations, as we know, expand like a gas to fill all available space and the Corrigan brand has been tarnished. Whether the damage will prove fatal to The Park Café remains to be seen.
“To lose two or three members of staff as a young restaurant working out the kinks is understandable, if unfortunate. To lose 14 is the stuff of ferry disasters.”
Ahead of us at the hostess station that night is Victoria Mary Clarke, whose other half Shane McGowan opened the place with a book launch. I wonder whether she’s here to offer a show of support to the ‘embattled’ Corrigan or merely acting out of hunger. Possibly both. We repair to the upstairs cocktail bar where a very enthusiastic bar man makes me a very good dirty martini and I catch up with my eldest sister and her eldest daughter. She’s a cub lawyer so I thought – better to have one and not need it. I don’t care for the look of the bar but others might. I can’t abide those high-top tables. The dining room has apparently been worked over but wants for character too. Maybe that’s the idea, the food deserves all of the attention it gets. You could start with a plate of oysters and probably should. We didn’t. You could also spend €16 for a taste of Frank Hederman’s exquisite smoked salmon but given the retail price of the stuff a taste is all you’d be getting. If fellow smoker-to-the-stars Sally Barnes featured on the menu, sixteen bucks might buy you a timed glimpse of her handiwork. A piscine peep-show.
Hands in pockets please sir. Better to give the kitchen something to do. How about an unimpeachable lobster bisque boasting a profound depth of crustacean flavour with each ochre spoonful? ‘Peter’s Omelette’ (named for the mollusc cultivator) is the dish that has ‘won’ social media and for once I agree with the internet. Perfectly turned eggs are lavished with a rich Sauce Bordelaise (red wine, demi-glace) studded with tender Irish snails and smokey with pancetta. It would be worth the gout to start every day with one of these. The last time I tasted Porchetta this good was in Liguria with my first wife when we happened upon an actual porchetta festival. Definitely a highlight of the honeymoon. Here the alabaster white fat is just at melting point and the impossibly thin slices singing with fennel. The seasoning is just so. The beetroot garnish is unnecessary however and the outer circumferences of those slices might need to be de-strung for some.
I suppose we have rictus-faced despot Vladimir Poutine to thank for the reappearance of chicken Kiev (or ‘Keev’ as we now understand) on restaurant menus. It’s hardly going to balance the scales when the hellfire licks at his heels. I had one at the Jamie Oliver place a while back but neglected to write about it, preferring to use the lines detailing my near-death-experience. It was pretty good. The chicken, not the choking. The one here is a paragon of the form with a light golden crumb covering moist flavoursome flesh. I could have used more garlic in the garlic butter but I always want too much of both of those things. I’m hoping that an abundance of the former mitigates against a surfeit of the latter. It sounds quasi-believable in a ‘doctors in your area don’t want you to know this amazing trick’ kind of way. Plating it on a bed of mangetout was peculiar but not unpleasant.
The Fish Pie is a signature dish back in Bentley’s and the handwriting is reproduced perfectly here. It is quite unimprovable, laden with good plump prawns, smoked haddock and Clare Island Salmon bound in Bechamel and topped with whipped potatoes. Comfort food of the very highest order. Confit Skeaghanore Duck Leg is served with Garbure Tarbais, the Gascony potage of white beans often served with goose meat. Again, there’s little fault to find, it’s a hearty bolstering dish for the dirty end of Winter.
The food is not flashy or modish – dishes are about elevating ingredients and executing preparations at the highest level. The proposition is all about flavour and satisfaction, which is not always a given. It’s the kind of stuff that I like to spend my own money on. All the more frustrating, then, that I’ll be thinking twice about doing that. Another reviewer pointed out that Corrigan had quipped that he was miffed not to be welcomed back to Ireland by the Artane Boy’s Band. If things were to trend in the wrong direction he might be a few squinty tweets away from being played out to the sound of a New Orleans jazz funeral.
The Park Café
No 1 Ballsbridge
Words: Conor Stevens