Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ballyfermot Resource Centre

The place I grew up in Dublin is a working-class suburb. In my whole time living there, there was never any place you could go to eat out, unless you counted the takeaways or the pubs which sometimes did food at lunchtimes.

In England, even if there are no restaurants you will always find a little cafe where you can pick up breakfast or lunch on the run. Ballyfermot didn't even have this. Until now.

My brother is associated with the Ballyfermot Resource Centre, a place which provides services for the local community like self-help groups, a counselling service, adult education and childcare. It also has a little cafe which offers breakfasts and lunches to the people in the adult education centre upstairs and anybody else who wanders in. They also cater for the local meals on wheels service.

Whilst being shown around by my brother one morning, Theresa the restaurant manager offered me lunch but I couldn't stay. So I popped in another morning for a chat and breakfast. Most people in the cafe at that time of the morning were eating a full Irish breakfast which looked and smelt delicious, but I opted for a toasted bacon sandwich. Well done bacon and well done toast, I said cautiously: there is nothing worse than a limp undercooked bacon butty. Theresa sat down with a healthy bowl of muesli for her breakfast, and Angela the centre manager joined us for a chat.

My mug of tea was scalding hot, and the teabag had been added to the mug at the kettle (the little things one takes for granted in Ireland - most tea in Australia is made with not-quite-boiling water and it shows). My bacon sandwich was perfect: excellent quality Irish bacon well cooked on the grill, and perfectly-done toast. I savoured every mouthful.

Angela and Theresa laughed when I promised them that I would post a review of their cafe online, but here it is. I was only sorry I couldn't stick around for lunch. I shall save that for my next trip.

Avoca Handweavers

The Avoca Handweavers story came into being almost 300 years ago in the tiny Wicklow village of Avoca. In its latest form, owned by Dublin business couple Donald and Hilary Pratt, Avoca has developed into a concept store encompassing homewares, clothing, kitchen shops, gourmet foods, and in-store cooking and baking.

The newest Avoca Handweavers store opened recently in Rathcoole, not far from my mum's home in Dublin. Having already popped into their stores in Dublin city centre and Wicklow's Powerscourt Townhouse, we were interested to see what they had created on our doorstep.

This large concept store has almost equal square footage given to retail space and dining space. Upstairs a large airy self-service cafe offers freshly made soups, hot lunches, breads and patisserie to the well-heeled local residents, as well as busy business people taking a break from their travels. next door a more formal table-service restaurant offers similar fare in more refined surroundings.

The salads are divine. The Mediterranean tomato and vegetable soup almost needs a knife and fork to consume it. The cakes and scones are so large that we had to share one scone between us (and we like scones). The jam is homemade, runny, and intensely flavoured.

Downstairs, we bought some brown scones for my sister's breakfast, and the lady at the check-out gave us a taste of a freshly-baked Bakewell slice. The shelves groaned with gourmet pastas and sauces, marmalades and mustards, nuts and exotic dried fruits. I escaped empty-handed only because of Australia's heavy restrictions on importing food.

I have a feeling that our local Avoca Handweavers will become a fixture in our family outings from now on.

Don Giovannis

Back to my mum's favourite Italian on my last Dublin trip, and the waiters are as charming as ever.

We spoke to John, the owner for the past sixteen years, a charming man who recognised us from the photo on the first posting I made last year. Clearly proud of his domain, he credits his success on excellent chefs and personable staff. I saw him greet many of the diners personally, and people obviously come back here again and again because of the friendly atmosphere as much as for the tasty home-style Italian food.

Mum's steak was perfectly cooked (well, cooked to her liking which is most important), my lasagne was delicious and our home-made soups were a welcome start to a meal on a chilly spring day.

Dining here just days after an expensive (but enjoyable) meal at the Unicorn, I know which one I will be coming back to on my next journey home. See you soon, Don Giovanni!

The Unicorn

The twenty-year anniversary of our graduation from the old UCD Engineering School around the corner was the occasion for a dinner at the Unicorn. Hidden down an alleyway off Merrion Row, the Unicorn was for years my favourite Dublin restaurant. As a student I used to gaze down the alleyway and imagine what it would be like to have the money to eat in a place like that.

A couple of scoops in Doheny and Nesbitts, and six of us arrived for our table at nine o'clock. Naturally, we had to wait at the tiny, cramped bar (the Unicorn doesn't rush you out the door) but we were entertained by a nice bottle of Chianti and a couple of plates of parma ham freshly cut from the specimen on the counter.

The Unicorn's menu looks a bit dated now, and then the waiter told us that there were no prawns. On second glance, the menu was pretty heavy on the prawns and Dublin Bay Prawns. That meant about half the dishes were no longer available. Disappointing. The pasta options were a little obvious - carbonara, amatriciana etc. I found myself struggling to choose something appetising. Finally I opted for the goat's cheese salad to start, followed by saltimbocca, and was not disappointed.

I guess we were focusing more on the conversation than the food, but what I saw around the table was predictable and perfectly edible, but forgettable really. The place was full to bursting, and still has a reputation of a place to see and be seen, but for the price (90 euros a head including wine - that's about $150 Australian) I would be expecting a lot more.

Service was lovely - professional, friendly without being overbearing (except perhaps when he tried to explain to me what parma ham was ) and efficient.