Dublin: New Cafés on the Block…

17th October 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

By now, we all know Dublin’s restaurant scene is on a roll.

Chefs, restaurateurs and customers have come a long way since the dark days of Charvet shirts and Chateaubriand, and I think it’s fair to say the capital is at the vanguard of a breakthrough for Irish food.

As our 21st century cuisine establishes itself, however, one ingredient has been overlooked. Beyond the Chapter Ones and Cleaver Easts, the Pichets and Pig’s Ears, a whole layer of casual eateries has escaped the mainstream media gaze.

Cafés don’t win Michelin Stars. They don’t get reviewed like restaurants. And yet, they’re the very places we are most likely to eat, work and socialise. Right now, they’re also serving up some of the most exciting rooms in Dublin… and the food’s not bad, either.

Dublin City Food, The Cake Café, Hatch & Sons, Phibsborough’s Woodstock Café and Oxmantown are just some of the businesses combining creative entrepreneurs, catchy concepts and a zeitgeisty cost-consciousness to breathe new life into the cityscape. They slot right in beside Dublin’s new wave of boutiques, collectives and restaurants.

The Fumbally is a poster child. Orbiting the city centre beyond St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an unpromising modern building here gives way to a surprisingly welcoming space – with sheer concrete walls and exposed industrial intestines softened by wooden tables and chairs, tasselled lamps and bright bowls of oranges and lemons. One white wall is plastered with random pictures… everything from an old CIE ad to a Perry Ogden print.

The place could have been furnished on freecycle.org. There’s a big, happy open kitchen, hipster staff in jeans and t-shirts, and wooden letters re-arranged to spell ‘Fambully’ above a wide-open preparation counter. Amy Huberman is just one of the street-cred celebs I’ve seen here over several visits. It’s a lo-fi space that feels like Dublin 2.0’s living room.

Crucially, however, the food gets as much love as the room. The Fumbally’s colourful home-cooking makes liberal use of Irish produce, “Mediterranean simplicity” and Moroccan spices, and there’s amazing bang for your buck in its porchetta (€6), a crispy ciabatta spilling over with slow-roast pork, spiced apple sauce and caper mayo.

The salads are fresh and bright, there’s a yummy glass of fresh OJ for €3, and Fumbally Eggs are a big breakfast hit, scrambled with Gubbeen cheese and tomatoes for €5. Best of all, perhaps, is the chocolate brownie – a shockingly effective exercise in decadence. It’s moist, choclatey, dense and makes you feel warm even when it’s served cold. Top marks.

Brother Hubbard (pictured above) is another business forging its name beyond the pale.

“This is the cafe you’ve been looking for” reads the cheeky little tagline out front. Curiosity stoked, I arrived to find a shoebox-small space enlivened by bright tables, chipper staff, funky fluorescent lights and specials written on brown paper. It’s one of the key enterprises contributing to the tantalising – and overdue – re-emergence of Capel Street.

As with The Fumbally, the food steps up to the plate. The popularity of its pulled pork special, with mustardy celeriac remoulade on sourdough, has seen it become a daily inclusion. It’s wicked in the way only mollycoddled pork can be, and when I visited, was served with a summer slaw providing a perfect counterpoint to the juicy, shredded meat.

Breakfast treats range from granolas to hangover-hitters like the warm bacon and cheese sambo, not to mention an intriguing Middle Eastern plate. Of course, good cafés need to tick the basic boxes too – and Brother Hubbard counts an award-winning barista among its staff, and its green tea is fresh enough to feel like you’ve just showered with mint.

Naturally, ventures like these will attract scepticism – and bullshit-detectors certainly twitch when you first land into the mix of kooky furniture, bo-ho bonhomie and eclectic customers munching artisanal fare by the light of their laptops.

Scepticism never tips into cynicism, however – and that seals the deal for me. Both of these cafes are bright ideas in a changing cityscape, and as culturally relevant as any of the mainstream restaurants driving Dublin’s foodie scene forward.

And thanks by to Jaysus, there isn’t a panini in sight.

The details…

The Fumbally: Fumbally Lane, 01 529-8732; thefumbally.ie.

Brother Hubbard: 153 Capel Street, 01 441-1112; brotherhubbard.ie.

This review originally ran in The Irish Examiner.