In their brochure, John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton describe their restaurant as unusual, in a unique and beautiful setting. This is an understatement; their Island Cottage Restaurant is extraordinary by any standards. You have to get there and back by ferry, a five-minute sail from Cunnamore pier, departing 7.55pm returning 11.55pm, for a return fare of €6.00.
You can’t help but feel part of something special, sailing into Roaring Water Bay among a boatload of fellow dinner-time sailors, adrenaline rising in anticipation of an island feast, which, after the ten minute walk from the pier, is exactly what you get.
In prescriptive fashion the brochure states “set menu, no choice, consists of a starter, main course, salad and cheese course, homemade brown bread, dessert and filter coffee.” Dinner might begin, after hummous-on-brown bread appetisers, with a ragout of vegetables in a light but deeply flavoured mushroom sauce, accompanied by more of the delicious, crusty brown bread.
The ample main course may be duck or fish or, as on the night in question, a joint of rarely roasted beef striploin comes carved with roast potatoes on the most intensely flavoured red wine sauce; utterly simple and marvellous, followed by dressed green salad and a slice of Gubbeen cheese and then the pièce de resistance, an alcoholic, hot Cointreau soufflé.
Coffee is served, along with a single freshly made chocolate truffle, in demi-tasses of Shanagarry pottery, before everyone pays and makes their way through moonlit dark to the midnight appointment with the ferryman.
John Desmond’s single-handed cooking of the freshest ingredients is that of a consummate professional: controlled, precise, with occasional flourishes (the dramatic soufflé) in confident expectation of applause. Ellmary combines the duties of maitresse d’hotel and MC with similar attention to detail. She rules the roost; the presumption is that diners submit to her authority.
Some may find the primacy of order – advance booking only with deposit, no credit cards, do’s and don’ts – a bit off-putting, but most are won over by the singular dining experience, unchanging and successful for over twenty years.
There is a small selection of well chosen red and white wine: four red and four white; priced about €20 to €45, you may be confident that they will be fine examples of their type and very good value.
Small functional glasses double for water and wine and cutlery is plain stainless steel. Wooden tables are adorned with fragrant little vases (Shanagarry again) of herbs grown around the periphery of the cottage, among them, curry plant, bay, rosemary, sage, fennel, borage, parsley, marjoram, chives.
The small cottage takes a maximum of 22 spread over three tables. All bookings under six share a table. Group bookings are possible even in the off season. One unisex toilet - small, but just about adequate.
Island Cottage Cookery School operates two-day courses for two people during March, April, May, September and October; morning courses, inclusive of light lunch, in the period 15 June to 15 September and four-day “hands on with John”, Wednesday to Sunday, in July and August.
An off-Island private dinner party service is available between 16 September and 14 June.
John Desmond is a respected artist as well as chef; his paintings hang in the gallery adjoining the restaurant. Interested parties should also inquire about the Island Cottage Artists/Writers' Retreats.