Sunday Tribune Newspaper September 2001
Following my account of a particularly dreadful meal in a rural pub in recent weeks, I have been taken to task by several readers - okay, two of them - who say that pub food is invariably pretty terrible. They are thinking, doubtless of unspeakable 'carveries' and tortured vegetables lying beneath heat-lamps. Yes, I've been there.
But not all pub food is dreadful. Some of it can be very good indeed. The Eagle, the world's first gastropub, in Faringdon Street serves some of the best food in London. I once ate salt cod with lentils and a green salsa there which rates as one of the most pleasurable things I've ever consumed. And the beer is good too.
Back home in Ireland, I have yet to find a pub that scales such heights but compare the size of population of the entire country to that of London. Anyway, I knew that I had been in a pub somewhere in Ireland where the food was very good indeed; I racked my brains and then It came back to me: the Suir Inn at Cheekpoint, last visited in 1983.
Cheekpoint is downstream of Waterford, just beyond where the Barrow joins the Suir and, predictably, a huge ESB generating station provides a grey, angular counterpoint to all that cloying natural beauty. We are a great country for providing concrete yang for every natural ying. Other countries strive for such balance; for us, it's like breathing.
Anyway, McAlpin's Suir Inn is a tiny pub perched at the water's edge in the quiet and remarkably attractive village of Cheekpoint, a couple of miles from Faithlegg and not far from the city. During the summer and at weekends throughout the year, you have what management types would call a very narrow window of opportunity for getting a table there. And they don't take bookings. You just take your chances.
On the sunny September Saturday we rolled up, we got it right. At 5.40pm, half the tables were occupied. By six o'clock, all were-taken and the crowd at the bar were watching, like hawks for a chance to nab one.
The remarkable thing about the Suir Inn is how many people they serve with decent food in a friendly and efficient manner in so little time. I have never seen so many plates whisked from a kitchen in the mere hour that we spent there. As Churchill might have said, never before have so many diners been served by so few in such a short time. Except he would have put it more eloquently.
A purist would have to say that the crab claws were a little overdone and slightly dry but they had good flavour and the portion was generous. The garlic butter was... well, it was both buttery and garlicky and, believe me, this is not always the case when you're eating out.
A dish of mussels, in the shell, also with garlic butter, passed muster with aplomb. The fact that they were very small mussels was, somehow, curiously reassuring. The best, sweetest mussels are very rarely big bruisers. Decent brown bread and plenty of butter accompanied.
McAlpin's curries are the stuff of legend in Waterford and it's easy to see why. I wonder is there any other pub in the country that eschews curry powder and, instead, freshly grinds the individual spices? And the body of the sauce is - I'm guessing here - real onion garlic and ginger all blitzed together in the way that all fans of Madhur Jaffrey will know and relish.
Yes, this was real curry strong on cinnamon, ginger and cumin, spicy without having recourse to lots of chilli, containing chunks of moist chicken breast. It was, indeed, a curry for which you would be willing to travel a considerable distance, especially if you don't have any of Madhur's cookbooks. It came with rice and a poppadum.
Seafood pie, like the curry, has not changed since my last visit all those years ago. It comes in its own ovenproof dish topped with good old red cheddar. Underneath, a layer of creamy mashed potato merges with the creamy piscine elements: salmon, haddock, shrimp, prawn and possibly one other meaty fish. This is ribsticking stuff. It took a stiff walk to settle it.
Everyone gets a little salad of homemade coleslaw which, if you happen to like coleslaw, is rather good. However, it does come as a kind of blast from the past. I suspect that regulars would resist change in this area.
We also consumed a pint and a glass of Murphy's (they don't stock Guinness, incidentally) and a glass of orange juice. The bill came to £37.25 before we added a few quid for the breathtakingly efficient service.