Opening any restaurant is a risky affair. Opening a restaurant in the car park of a shopping centre with a car wash as a neighbour on one side and a fast food restaurant on the other side might seem like inviting failure, never mind just taking a risk.
But Loko at the Ardkeen Centre in Waterford proves that anything is possible. Owned by Donagh Cronin and Stan Leslie this is an ambitious space, with seating on three different levels, a cool bar area and interior design that can only be described as industrial – recycled electric cable reels form tables, the stairs are exposed metal and the light fittings are funky – it all makes for a space that can be an exciting place to be.
Décor, of course, is just window dressing if the food doesn’t match the ambition and it’s here that the story of Loko is still unfolding. Head chef Daithi Larkin has been slowly but firmly placing his stamp on the food and, whilst the printed menu has changed only a little since the restaurant opened, the blackboard specials give a clearer view of what the future will bring.
Regular Megabites readers will know Mr Larkin’s name as Michael Quinn’s second in command back when the kitchens of Waterford Castle were pushing out some of the best food in the region. Michael Quinn has moved on to other things but his influence on his former protégé has been immense and it has given Mr Larkin a deep appreciation of local sourcing and respect for the produce he works with. Some time spent with Paul Flynn in The Tannery has helped to galvanise this emphasis on ingredient-led cooking, complemented by Mr Larkin's interest in the technical fireworks of chefs like Heston Blumenthal.
At a recent dinner, a dish of roast monkfish on the bone with a roast chicken consommé was astoundingly good. Seared duck breast and rillette was served with Savoy cabbage and morteau sausage, with a spear of delicious crispy duck skin. Some hake was served with root vegetables, chickpeas and a lobster bisque. There were superb chips and the garlic mash was deliciously garlicky – these were dishes that were hard to fault. From the printed menu there’s plenty of food that hits the mark too: ham hock with remoulade, or wild mushrooms on toast with Parmesan, or braised beef cheeks in red wine are all dishes I’ve enjoyed.
There are glitches of course – the lighting is too bright and the service needs just a bit more cohesion. A bowl of apple crumble with salted caramel ice cream and custard wasn’t a total success with neither the sweetness of the crumble or the salted caramel flavour of the ice cream being defined enough within the dish. But these are small criticisms of a restaurant that is on a rapid journey. Over the coming weeks the kitchen team will be bolstered by the arrival of Tom Spruce (ex Campagne) and changes to the menu that will see a greater emphasis on the type of food that Mr Larkin so clearly loves to cook.