She may have been a little on the grumpy side, but Lucinda O'Sullivan found the delicious food at Avoca's Fern House brought a smile to her face.
One of the great Irish business success stories of our times has been that of Avoca Handweavers, which started life in 1974 when Donald and Hilary Pratt bought an old mill in the Co Wicklow village of Avoca.
They followed that with a shop and cafe at Kilmacanogue, which then became their HQ. The Pratts just seemed to get everything right. With a terrific range of good, clean, home-cooked, Cordon Bleu-style salads, terrines, pies and hot dishes in their cafe, Kilmacanogue became a destination for the Southside housewife.
Expansion came quickly, with branches at Suffolk Street in Dublin and Powerscourt in Enniskerry and, as their son, Simon, and daughter, Amanda, became more involved in the business, they took it on to the next level, with hip clothes, garden centres, and kitchen shops. Now known simply as Avoca, they continue to provide probably some of the best casual food in the country -- food which is often imitated, but rarely in such a successful fashion.
A couple of years ago, Kilmacanogue saw the addition of the table-service Fern House, to complement their self-service Sugar Tree Cafe. The Fern House cafe and restaurant is in an enormous Victorian-style conservatory, which opens out on to a paved terrace -- lovely for Sunday-morning breakfast -- set up with Avoca's own brand of classy panache. Mainly a 9.30am-5pm spot, Fern House opens late on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays for dinner. Filled with hand-painted and wrought-iron furnishings, the place is always abuzz with families chomping happily as they gaze out at the Australian tree ferns. The staff, too, seem imbued with a jolly attitude; an almost born-again Avoca fervour, which makes me feel like a grump!
We kicked off with a glass each of summery prosecco with raspberries (€7). Starters (€6.95/€8.95) included French onion soup with a Gruyere crouton; pear and Cashel Blue cheese salad with toasted walnuts and cider vinaigrette; and chilli and salt squid. I opted for deliciously fresh crab (€8.95) with a mango and mint salad, generously anointed with a piquant, zippy lime and chilli dressing, while Brendan had a cracking combination of duck liver pate (€8.95) with apricots and pistachio nuts, and an aromatic peach and spicy-cardamom chutney.
Mains (€16.50/€26.95) included pancetta-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with figs, herbs and goat's cheese; as well as chargrilled lamb steak with dauphinoise potato and tomato and olive ragu. There was a sirloin steak for the steak man, and an Indian beef curry with all the trimmings for colonial types -- of which there are plenty in Co Wicklow!
I had a fine tranche of hake (€21.95) loosely crusted with crab and herbs, which was sitting on a delicious lemon mash, scattered with a colourful dressing of pomegranate seeds and olives. It was like a happy pill, one which had me immediately sitting under a lemon tree in Italy! Brendan went with a Provencal-style bouillabaisse (€21.95). I have had many Irish versions of this Mediterranean classic in which the fish is but a suggestion in a muddle of tomato-y jus, but this was a liberal bowl, with chunks of salmon, sea bass, mussels, and crab claws, topped with a langoustine, all bathed in a light tomato and Vermouth broth, and complete with garlic toast and a red pepper rouille. We couldn't resist a side order of chunky chips (€4.95) cooked in duck fat and served with a dish of horseradish mayonnaise.
We finished off with a tongue-tingling lemon tart (€6.95) with shortbread biscuits and creamy pannacotta ice cream, and a luscious, totally seductive baked chocolate fondant (€6.95) with vanilla ice cream. With a crisp, fresh bottle of Greco di Tufo (€28) and optional service, our bill came to €134.65.
We enjoyed it so much we went back for lunch a couple of days later!
The Fern House,
Tel: (01) 274-6990
Three to Try
Parklands and Gardens
PERROTTS GARDEN BISTRO
Hayfield Manor, Perrott Avenue, College Rd, Cork
Tel: (021) 484-5900
Style: A gorgeous, ethereal conservatory in five-star Hayfield Manor. See and be seen as you chomp through the delicious, eclectic food
Price: A la carte mains, €16-€33.
Twilight Menu, Mon-Thurs, €25-€32, 5.30pm-6.45pm
4-course Sunday lunch, €32
Try: Roast breast of Barbary duck, with pithivier of confit leg, sauteed girolles, cavolo nero, and a sherry jus
Wine: From €24
Cahernane House Hotel, Muckross Rd, Killarney, Co Kerry
Tel: (064) 663-1895
Style: Chef David Norris and his team are cooking up a storm at the former home of the Earls of Pembroke. A hidden gem
Price: Dinner, 2-3 courses with coffee, €37-€45. Bar-bistro menu also in Dungeon Bar
Try: Irish new potato, goat's cheese and garden herb ravioli with sauteed wild mushrooms, onion veloute, and white truffle oil
Wine: From €26
The Village at Lyons, Celbridge, Co Kildare
Tel: (01) 630-3500
Style: A Turner conservatory in glorious surroundings with food by chef Paul Quinn. Four-course meal for two, plus bottle of wine, €99
Price: A la carte mains, €19.50-€35
Try: Rump of lamb, asparagus, confit tomato, courgette, aubergine and new potatoes
Wine: From €25