"Once in a lifetime." That's what the translation of Ichigo Ichie, Cork's newest fine dining restaurant means, and it delivers just that. An experience so special, you'll be thinking about it for weeks afterward.
The most eagerly anticipated restaurant opening of the year, Ichigo Ichie is a dream that's finally come to light for Japanese-born Takashi Miyazaki, who also owns the popular Miyazaki - a little takeaway joint on Evergreen Street that always has queues out the door.
After ending up on the waitlist for a table at Ichigo Ichie, I finally (okay, like two weeks after it opened, but it felt like a lifetime) snatched a midweek seat at the chef's counter.
Ichigo Ichie lies behind a dark door with mirrored windows hiding the incredible secrets within
You dine from a 12-course tasting menu (€95) in one of three areas: 'Zen' Japanese garden-style area at the pebble and slate front of the restaurant, 'Nagomi' Harmony Dining in the middle of the dark grey room or up close and personal at Miya's Kappou Counter.
While there may very well be magic in every corner here, the real sorcery happens at the five-seater counter, where dishes you've never seen anywhere before are shaped in front of you.
Running 15 minutes late after a slight Google maps issue about the restaurant location (which is now fixed), I burst in to this Zen-like space of complete and utter calm.
Banish any thoughts you may have of "stuffy" fine dining because Ichigo Ichie couldn't be more inclusive. A beautiful calligraphy menu of Japanese characters covers an English printed one that hints of the 12 dishes that are to come.
Kappou is a traditional Japanese counter where cold dishes, including sushi, are prepared and served in front of you and Miyazaki manages to choreograph serving the 12 course tasting menu to 25 people in the room without a single ounce of visible stress.
The dining experience is designed to take you on a journey from cold to hot, cooling down again and every dish boasting that balance of umami - the salty-sweet flavours Japanese food does so well.
Kicking things off for the first few courses was crumbly tofu with rhubarb, nigiri sushi and a dish of bright green tofu with Thornhill duck
It becomes clear instantly that the only thing you have to do all night is sit back and enjoy as beautiful things to eat are handed over to you by a smiling Miyazaki in his chef whites.
Slices of blowtorched scallops are beside a tender piece of tuna, both of which have been placed atop of rice that Miya has shaped by hand from a wooden box on the counter.
As for that bright green tofu? It's pure asparagus, pungent in that brilliant way that only asparagus can be. A cured onsen egg yolk, delicate flakes of whiting and salted cherry blossoms handpicked by Miyazaki himself also appear on the plate.
Thornhill duck from Cavan is thinly sliced and topped with crispy leek.
So far, so, so, incredible.
What follows is a masterclass in flavour as Miyazaki and his team deliver plate after plate of pure excellence
The kitchen team prepare the hot dishes, such as a smoky dashi broth with Castletownbere crab and daikon (an Asian radish not unlike a nicer turnip which features later on with a bamboo shoot) or one of my favourites of the night: a chargrilled ox tongue hailing from West Cork with wild garlic and a spicy paste made from yuzu and chilli.
A standout dish of the night is a five day old halibut, aged in a custom-built fridge of 2-4 degrees and no fan so that the fish stays moist. An egg yolk sauce finishes it off.
Throughout the night, Miya chats through each dish and explains the ingredients - where they come from, why he uses them and the memories they hold for him.
A custardy soup-like bowl of tender chicken thigh that you dig out with a spoon is topped with fish and was "a childhood favourite" of the chef. Not once are you made to feel like you should know what an ingredient is - this experience is as much about sharing knowledge as it is about eating.
Server Rhia acts as a go-between guests and Miyazaki throughout the night, skilfully explaining dishes when she senses he needs time to prepare something and adding her own gas Cork flair to the counter.
Her recommendation of a glass of Montepulciano from their organic and biodynamic wine list was top notch.
Despite being a solo diner in the middle of two pairs, not once did I feel like I was alone. People share their thoughts on the dishes and general chitchat (shoutout to the lady beside me who also shared a few sips of her Sake).
The whole vibe is that of an underlying love of good food
A trio of dishes finishes the savoury side off: a rice bran with shitake and oyster mushrooms, a red miso broth - used only for special occasions - and pickled Kogomi, a type of mountain fern that's bitter and gorgeous.
As with everything else on the menu, dessert not only goes with the seasons but blends Japanese tradition and Irish ingredients seamlessly. A rich, sticky rice cake made with mocha chocolate and Jameson whiskey is dusted in cacao and finished with a single edible borage flower.
12 courses, unlimited brilliance. The menu at Ichigo Ichie will change every one and a half months or so and Miya is already thinking of the next dishes, which means never ending excitement for Cork locals and an excuse for plenty of return visits.
A trip to the ultra futuristic toilet upstairs is excuse enough though. Check it out and you'll know what I mean.
Walking back through the darkened door and into the dimming light of Fenn's Quay, I had the feeling of having experienced something so special that it would stay close to my heart for quite some time.
Once in a lifetime. Make Ichigo Ichie something that happens at least once in yours.
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