Before supper clubs and pop-ups became buzzwords to be lobbed around by knowing foodies, The Island Cottage was offering the perfect pop up restaurant experience on a small island off the coast of West Cork. Every summer for 25 years, locals and visitors make the five minute ferry journey from Cunnamore Pier to Heir Island, walk up the winding lanes past cottages and fields, and find themselves at the front door of John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton’s cottage for a very unusual restaurant experience.
The Island Cottage restaurant seats 22 people in the living room for a four course set meal cooked by John and served by Ellmary. John trained at the Ritz Hotel in Paris while Ellmary was manager of the restaurant in the Hôtel de Crillon and this experience shows in the wonderful food created from a tiny domestic kitchen, and the efficiency of serving a large amount of people in a quite small space.
I have been hearing about the Island Cottage for years, as my dad honed his cooking skills at the one on one cooking school run out of the kitchen, and many of my favourite dishes growing up came from here (including Duck Aigre-Douce). As a child and teenager my fussy eating habits would not have suited the fixed menu format, but over the past few years I have learnt to eat pretty much everything. Once you’ve eaten bull testicles, you’ve pretty much crossed the fussy eating rubicon. On this visit,kindly sponsored by my parents, we were blessed with the kind of beautifully sunny evening that makes West Cork the equal of the Cote D’Azur or Amalfi. We started off with drinks in the herb garden behind the cottage, with views across the evocatively named Roaringwater Bay to Mount Gabriel, and Jeremy Iron’s pink castle. When dinner was ready, Ellmary ushered us inside and provided me with some aloe vera lotion for my recently acquired sunburn, while guiding the various tables through the menu. Depending on your party size, you may have a table by yourself as our group of four did, or you may share with others
The meals at the Island Cottage combine classic French cooking with great local ingredients.Our starter was a delicate cured salmon with home-made mayonnaise, pickled cucumber and delicate little loaves of brown bread. I have a challenging relationship with salmon, I love it raw and hate it cooked, and this was just perfect. Brown bread similarly would not be high on my list, but we ended up polishing off ours so quickly we were supplied with a second helping. The main was cod with a creamy mushroom bonne femme sauce and potato pureed with olive oil. The cod having been handpicked that morning by John from the fish market at Union Hall was immaculately fresh. It was delicate and melted into perfect little bites at the touch of a fork. This was followed by a slice of local Gubbeen cheese along with a tart fresh beetroot garnish that perfectly complimented the nuttiness of the cheese. Our dessert was a white chocolate mousse with passionfruit and raspberry sauce. I was the only person at the table who actually likes white chocolate but this again was devoured by all. It managed to capture the sweetness and creaminess of white chocolate, without the cloying feeling it usually leaves.
At midnight, our dinner complete, we wandered down the pitch dark lanes (bring a torch) of the island to our waiting ferry and made the trip back across the bay under the millions of stars that are never visible in inner city Dublin. It was the kind of evening to savour in your memory for a very long time.