Is it a café? Is it a deli? Is it a restaurant?
In fact, this tasty little template for the production, sale and enjoyment of simple Irish food is all of the above. Or at least, a little bit of all of the above.
Castlebar’s Café Rua has been open over a decade now. In that time, the torch has not only passed from Ann McMahon to her children, Aran and Colleen; it has seen a second branch (‘Rua’) open with a bakery and delicatessen on Spencer Street. It has learned a trick or two, in other words, and evolved into something quite unique in the process.
I’ve driven three hours from Dublin, half of it stuck behind a car transporter dawdling along at 80kmph. By the time I park up, locate North Antrim Street and push open the door, I’m ready for a shot of comfort and a serious pick-me-up.
The first sign is encouraging. It advertises Pónaire coffee to go.
There’s a feeling when you first walk in the door of a cafe. Something clicks, or it doesn’t click. It’s about several things. A good café needs to feel cosy without feeling crowded. It needs to have the intimacy of a living room, but spacing and control enough not to have to worry about your children knocking tea into a neighbour’s lap.
Service needs to come with a smile from staff who need to know that, although you may not expect earth-shattering food, you are looking forward to a casual reboot: a few stolen moments of company, comfort fare and no washing-up.
Café Rua ticks all of those basic boxes.
It’s full, but not too full. Tables are arranged around a small, open-plan space with bright yellow daffodils poking out of polka-dot jugs. Tying in with the chirpy red shopfront, there’s a red lamp on the service counter, red blinds and the odd splash of red paint.
Ok, there’s a tad too much pine and lino for my taste, but that’s a minor detail – and one I’m quickly distracted from thanks to a cabinet full of Westport Grove jams, Knocknarea Honey and treats like David Llewellyn’s organic balsamic cider vinegar.
The service is straight from the good café manual – with lots of eye contact, a brief run through the menu (on blackboards), and just enough direction to help me make good choices. The first of those is a ‘Mayo Mezze’ ( below, €10).
What’s a Mayo Mezze? Why, it’s a chopping board loaded with Carrowholly cheese, Westport quince jam and Stephen Gould’s leaves, as well as a free range egg, a dollop of Rua pate and relish, and a hunk of brown bread with Cuinneog farmhouse butter (also served in Chapter One, incidentally). Oh, and a refreshing glass of homemade lemonade.
Essentially, it’s place on a plate. I love the simple layout; the fact that it draws from farms, fields and larders just a stone’s throw away. There’s an indulgent, Gouda-like sweetness to the cheese, the lightly-dressed leaves taste like they were picked this morning, and the pate is moist and moreish. Every café in the country should do a version.
Unfortunately, my main course – pan-fried hake with potato cake, mixed leaves and basil mayonnaise (€13.50) – doesn’t quite hit the same heights.
It arrives just a couple of minutes after I ask for it, which seems a little hasty. The top half of the fillet is dry and without glisten. The potato cake is good, the mayo nice and pungent, and I like the pomegranate seeds in the salad, but hake is hake. You can’t overcook it.
Café Rua opens for dinner on Friday nights, but lunch is its bread and butter – so expect lots of toasted sambos, paninis, lasagne and soup (potato, leek and wild garlic when I visit) alongside the specials. There are gungy cakes, tarts and brownies galore for dessert, too.
My friendly waitress recommends the upside-down cake. I ask whether it’s better warm or cold, and her reply is priceless. “If you warm it, the sugar melts ever-so-slightly. Everything is already caramelised so that works nicely.” Sold!
I finish up with a smile on my face, and that cup of Pónaire to go.
A three-course lunch with coffee cost €28.95; tip extra.
New Antrim Street, Castlebar, Co. Mayo; 094 902-3376; caferua.com
This Cafe Rua review originally ran in The Irish Examiner.