Restaurant: A happy ending

Jacobs On The Mall; 30a South Mall, Cork, Eire, 00 353 21 251530. Lunch Mon-Sat 12.30-2.30pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6.30-10pm. Three-course dinner Ipounds 25-Ipounds 30 (pounds 21-pounds 25). Credit cards accepted, except Diners
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SOME PEOPLE think it's the cushiest job in the world being a restaurant critic. But there are times, let me tell you, when it's really tough. Take my recent holiday in Ireland. There I was relaxing in the rugged splendour of Rosscarbery in west Cork, overlooking one of the world's most impossibly beautiful bays, when the call-up came from my editor: "While you're there, why don't you find a good restaurant to review?"

Unfortunately, as far as I could gather, there aren't any reviewable restaurants in that part of the country. The nearest posh ones are an hour's drive away in Cork itself. And when you've escaped the big smoke in order to chill out on beaches, throw sticks to dogs and let your baby chew pebbles, the last thing you want to do is head somewhere urban to eat sophisticated London-style cuisine.

But I bit the bullet, wrote off a precious beach day, and took the family on a trip to Cork. It would give us the chance to visit the Blarney Stone in the afternoon, which, in case you wondered, is in a nice castle infested by elderly American tourists who think they're Irish. To get the "gift of the gab" you have to queue, turn your head upside down, kiss a stone which has been kissed by a million and one ebola-ridden mouths, and be snapped by an official photographer who'd like to charge you a fiver for the privilege. On balance, I decided it would be better to remain inarticulate.

Anyway, the restaurant. The one we chose, Jacobs On The Mall, probably isn't the smartest in Cork - that honour falls to the fabled Ivory Tower, which I would have liked to visit one evening but didn't dare for fear of having to negotiate an hour's drive on Irish roads drunk at night - but it does have a fine reputation. According to The Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland 1999, its head chef, Mercy Fenton, transforms "the simplest ingredients" into "stratospheric cooking and majestic flavours".

I'd love to deliver a similar rave myself, but I can't quite for two reasons. First, we went at lunchtime and most of the interesting stuff - eg loin of rabbit wrapped in Parma with black pudding; seared John Dory fillets with tagliatelle and melted tomatoes - is only available on the evening menu. Second, because I ordered really badly. For my starter, I foolishly chose the ballotine of duck confit, with balsamic and shallots, imagining I would get something deliciously crispy and hot, but ended up with something cold, dull and tasting of minced duck. For my main course, pursuing my theory that the most boring-sounding dish on a menu is often the best, I had the roast cod with red peppers, potatoes, capers and bacon. My theory let me down. Though the huge chunk of fish was obviously very fresh, it had been slightly undercooked so that its texture was off-puttingly slimy. Also, the new potatoes weren't as perfect-tasting as they should have been in the land of potatoes, and I've definitely eaten classier bacon.

Right, that's the grumbling over and done with, because in every other respect we all loved the place. We liked its spacious elegance - it's in what looks like the gallery of a Victorian museum: white-painted iron pillars, a lofty ceiling with big windows at the top; we liked the friendly service; and we liked the relaxed ambience. If Jacobs On The Mall were in London, it would be full of designer suits. Instead, most of the clientele (old women, unsmart couples) looked as if they'd wandered off the high street for a mid-shopping break. It's the sort of place where you don't feel embarrassed to let your baby go crawling around the floor. That's Ireland for you.

And all the other dishes we had were first-rate. X adored her steamed mussels with leeks and coriander - or would have done if I hadn't wolfed most of them in compensation for my cold minced duck. The Rat raved about his mixed leaf salad with apple, serrano ham and sunflower seeds.

Their main courses were just as good. The Rat's crispy chicken confit was as crispy and succulent as one could have hoped, while X couldn't fault her warm salad of soy marinated beef with coriander and garlic confit. I could, though. The beef wasn't as rare as I would have liked. But that's the Irish way: the last time I came to Cork, I bought a huge rib of beef and asked the butcher how to cook it if I wanted it rare; he told me three hours and it ended up way overdone - "rare" is Irish for "the way we like it", you see.

Best of all was the pudding. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the date and butterscotch pudding with home-made vanilla ice cream we all shared was the richest, stickiest, most lipsmackingly wonderful pudding I've ever tasted. Rather sweetly, the Rat later declared that his lunch at Jacobs On The Mall was his favourite bit of the whole, whole holiday. Do we care what a 12-year-old makes of a restaurant? Probably not. But I thought I'd throw it in as a cute ending, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

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