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June 12, 2010 12:48 am
O’Brien Chop House, which opened last summer, can be added to the list of charms of Lismore in the Irish Republic. This historic town, a two-hour drive south of Dublin in County Waterford, is home to several long-established attractions – the tiny St Carthage’s Cathedral, and an imposing castle that now belongs to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – and was also the birthplace of Richard Boyle, the father of modern chemistry.
The town’s Main Street houses several independent businesses, including an excellent butcher, bars and cafés. Among them is O’Brien Chop House, its exterior distinguished by a wooden board displaying a pink lamb chop. Inside, its dark wooden tables are laid with good quality Sheffield cutlery and blue-and-white plates. The soda bread arrives sliced on simple wooden boards with plenty of local butter. The Black Rock stout, brewed at nearby Dungarvan brewery, is served in silver tankards.
Our first courses – a Caesar salad, crab claws with wild garlic and lemon butter, and lambs’ kidneys, cooked with just the right amount of tangy Worcester sauce – were excellent but they were outshone by what followed.
A John Dory was cooked whole in the oven, with a lip-smacking black butter sauce. A giant rib of beef came complete with its own carving knife and fork. Both dishes were stunning in their sourcing, the precision with which they had been cooked and the simplicity of their presentation, alongside creamed spinach and wild garlic mash. Almost as good were the puddings: a lemon tart, rhubarb mess, chocolate mousse cake and brown bread ice cream. Such a good lunch for six came to €205 ($248), excluding service.
The trio who have transformed what was a failed location a year ago into this polished but relaxed restaurant are its owner Justin Green, an Anglo-Irishman; its manager Richard Reeve, an Englishman; and its talented chef Eddie Baguio, a Filipino. Green reveals that “neither the restaurant nor his chef would have been on the market but for the current recession”.
Green grew up in Ballyvolane House, a 25-minute drive east of Lismore, which his parents transformed into a hotel in 1985. He took over running it in 2004 after a stint as general manager of Babington House, the country house hotel in Somerset from the people behind Soho House, a private members’ club in London.
When Green spotted that Lismore’s Barça tapas bar had closed, he could hardly believe his luck. The site was once a traditional Irish pub, complete with many of its original Victorian wooden features in the front part of the building but also with room for enough tables in the rear room, which leads to an attractive garden with space for more tables.
While it was simple enough to restore the restaurant to its original name of O’Brien, it was a much more imaginative step on Green’s behalf to transform the business into a chop house, the kind of establishment that used to flourish in London, serving chops, cutlets and steaks on the bone.
“I could sense there was a fantastic atmosphere in the building so I decided to take a punt,” Green says. His total investment has been no more than €30,000 as he rents the space from the former owners.
Green’s initiative was rewarded by a phone call from a friend asking him whether he was looking for a chef. Glin Castle, a country house hotel nearby, had just closed and its chef, Eddie Baguio, was on the market.
Green admits he was unsure whether a Filipino chef could deliver what he was looking for: simple, robust Irish food using seasonal ingredients. But Baguio has allayed those concerns. “We have a tasting every week and he is getting 99.9 per cent of the dishes bang on,” Green says. “He really does understand wild Irish ingredients.”
From the walled gardens of Ballyvalone House come potatoes, cabbages, wild garlic and salad leaves as well as the soft fruit for the desserts and the jams that are sold behind the bar.
The final figure in this unlikely triumvirate is Richard Reeve. I first met him 15 years ago when he was working at Le Caprice in London. The love of a good Irish woman brought him to Dublin a decade ago and then to the quieter environs of Dungarvan where he first heard about Green’s plans for the chop house. “I love it here,” he says. “It feels like a different universe from London but we still want it to be just as professional.”
O’Brien Chop House may not survive quite as long as the cathedral or castle but it will give any visitor to this engaging town a great deal of pleasure.
O’Brien Chop House, Main Street, Lismore, County Waterford, tel: + 353 58 53810; www.obrienchophouse.ie
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