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Food and Drink

FOOD / Corky cat is no flash in the pan: Emily Green is served pizza with pizazz by an Irish American, and wakes up to the big, big breakfast

Things about Seamus O'Connell are not always what they seem. For a start, while his name is pure Kerry and his accent bog-Irish, he comes from Arizona. He might have picked up his dress sense in a previous life. This lanky fellow seems partial to the gear last worn with a straight face in 1968 - say, purple denims and a bad, bad Harlem high-top cap.

And his eccentricity is much more than shirt-deep. While he has the gentle, slightly distracted quality of a jazzman, Mr O'Connell, 27, is a heat-and-sizzle chef, and a remarkably good one. To compress into CV-speak how, between 1987 and 1993, young O'Connell progressed from Arizona to New York to Sligo, to Paris, to Lyon and back to Ireland, would sound like little more than name-dropping. Best simply, to say that he is a jazzy character who scats along, in so far as any young cook can scat, whether in a frantic New York restaurant or the pressurised, formal kitchen of a Michelin three-star.

This requires stamina and a healthy rebel streak. Rather than remain in grand kitchens, where too many young chefs graduate from drones to drill sergeants, he took his classical training to Cork where, last July, he and his Irish- born cousin, Clare O'Connor, opened The Ivory Tower Restaurant. Ms O'Connor greets, carries food and generally runs the place. Like her cousin, she is extraordinarily fair, tall, slim and quietly self-possessed. One cannot help but admire these two: their coltish beauty is coupled with a touching, low- key sense of dignity.

Cork is a university town, and perhaps the restaurant's name alludes to a certain professorial remove from workaday lives. At any rate, shaggy professors, among others, would probably like the Ivory Tower. The room itself is airy, high-ceilinged and bay-windowed, up a flight of stairs in converted exchange buildings. Custom-made

table bases, roughly shaped like hour-glasses, support dark mahogany tops. It's neither chic nor folksy - just comfortable.

The profs must appreciate the opening hours, too. Mr O'Connell finds it irritating that most restaurants stop serving lunch at 2pm, so he takes last orders until 4pm. On the other hand, some things that should matter don't seem to. No one appeared too fussed by smeary wine glasses, or bottles left out for a wine-tasting that were better suited for the vinegar crock by the end of endless lunch.

There are good unoxidised wines from a short list, but it is the food that wows. A 'duck and aubergine pizza' is not a bad joke, but a good dish. Mr O'Connell learnt in the States that pizza toppings need not all involve tomato sauce, industrial mozzarella and a sprinkling of harsh, dried herbs. He also deduced that the base can change. The one I sampled was made from a conventionally yeasted bread dough, lent a pleasing acidity by the addition of fermented flour (what the Italians call bigo, the Americans 'mother', and the French 'chef'). Another day, he might use puff pastry or even croissant dough.

As to why he should choose to top a pizza with duck, the answer lies in good larder management: he had to use it up. Duck also appears as confit - a perfect one, the fat masterfully rendered, the seasoning sure.

The best thing we ate was a delicate sweetbread and asparagus gratin. Usually, said Mr O'Connell, he used it to fill Cornish pasties. And if this sounds too fancy-pants for the common man, I can only say that the common man should have the chance to try it.

The place is so baby-friendly it can produce a high-chair. But parents expecting Cow & Gate should know: Mr O'Connell's idea of baby food the day we visited was perfectly delicate pike quenelles. The baby did not get any. We ate them.

BUTTERED eggs, evidently, are a Cork speciality. Certainly baskets of gleaming eggs can be found in the Saturday market in the centre of the city. (The butter seals the shell, preventing evaporation and preserving the eggs' freshness.) They can also be found in the gingham-draped kitchen of Ken and Cathleen Buggy, proprietors of The Old Presbytery bed and breakfast in Kinsale, Co Cork.

The bedrooms here are elegant jumbles. Brass bedsteads hold voluptuous mattresses, their blousiness seconded by great mountains of pillows. All this softness is countered with crisply ironed bed linen. Some angel slips upstairs unseen to turn on the electric blankets before guests retire.

Breakfast is a feast: fresh orange juice, home-made yoghurt, pureed rhubarb flavoured with orange juice, stewed fruits, cereals, perfect eggs, black and white puddings and excellent soda bread.

Mr Buggy is the artist who draws the witty cartoons for the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide (Estragon Press, pounds 11.99, available from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11, 071- 221 1992). It is edited by John and Sally McKenna who, in the past three years, have led me through the north and south of Ireland. I can think of no better advisers. Their guide sorts out the touristic from the authentic, county by county, and identifies affordable and welcoming restaurants, hotels and B & Bs. Plus dairies, shops, markets, cheesemakers . . . It's not bad on bars, either.

The Ivory Tower, The Exchange Buildings, 35 Princes Street, Cork (010 35321 274665). Vegetarian meals. Approx pounds 5- pounds 10 lunch, pounds 15- pounds 20 dinner. Open Tue-Sat lunch (12-4pm), dinner (6.30-11pm). No credit cards.

The Old Presbytery, Cork St, Kinsale, Co Cork (010 35321 772027). B & B doubles, pounds 20 per person; singles pounds 26.

(Photograph omitted)