The review: The Peacock Café is a welcome development
The Peacock Café, Abbey Theatre, Abbey Street, Dublin 1, (01) 8787222
The last café at The Abbey closed back in 2007, and since then theatre-goers who have failed to forward-plan have gone hungry. We're used to hearing whinging and moaning from the National Theatre, about how their building is no longer fit for purpose and how under-funded they are. But there's been precious little in the way of public complaint from its customers about the lack of sustenance to help them sit through the performances. Pre-performance and interval drinks are all very well, but without something more substantial to keep them going, the theatre's customers must be in danger of nodding off, or being distracted from what's on stage by the rumbling of their stomachs.
The Abbey is located in a part of town that, it's fair to say, is something of a culinary desert. Patrons wanting something more than a convenience store sandwich eaten on the hoof have until now been limited to the 101 Talbot and Le Bon Crubeen. So The Peacock Café is a welcome development, not least for local office workers - Irish Life, The National Lottery, VHI, and Independent Newspapers are all head-quartered in the vicinity - who also suffer from a paucity of local eating options.
The good news for them is that The Peacock Café is open all day, serving wholesome Kilbeggan organic porridge for breakfast, and artisan rolls and salads for lunch, along with a hearty soup and braise each day. The menu is modest and unpretentious - you won't find anything to scare the horses here, nor any unfamiliar ingredients. That said, it has been written, by restaurant consultant, Hugo Arnold, with an amount of flair, and everything (with one exception, which I'll come to in due course) that I have tried in two visits since the café opened a couple of weeks ago, has been excellent.
The café is located downstairs beside the Peacock theatre (which - ahem - describes itself as 'the engine room of Irish theatre') in what was previously the bar area. For a subterranean space the designers have done the best that they can, but there's no getting away from the fact that you are sitting in a basement with no natural light. The furniture is smart-casual, and there's one large communal table as well as smaller tables. A 'provocative' quote from Brecht is painted in large red type on one wall. I'm not sure why the national theatre needed to bring in a theatre consultant from the UK to help with the design, when there are so many under-employed Irish architects, but no doubt they had their reasons.
The first time that I dropped in was for lunch, and I had one of the artisan rolls filled with tarragon-flavoured Irish free-range chicken and roast tomato on a super-fresh light bun. A big thumbs up for taking the costly decision to go for free-range poultry, and to deliver the product for the princely sum of €5.50.
Having been impressed with the quality of the food on my first visit, I went back for dinner on a Saturday evening, having booked the table via the box-office for a pre-performance slot of 7pm. We shared a portion of the soup to start, a hearty courgette and thyme combination presented in one of those trendy Falcon white and blue enamel bowls that tasted just the way that it would if you made it at home, accompanied by croutons that could have been more crisp. For mains, we tried a salad of broccoli, pea, cucumber, alfalfa, toasted seeds, avocado and mint that we liked very much, the assembly well-balanced and nicely dressed, along with the daily braise, a beef and Guinness stew with carrots and tiny mushrooms that had good depth of flavour; it was wholesome and pleasing. Hugo Arnold is one of the team behind Hatch & Sons on St Stephen's Green, underneath the Little Museum of Dublin, and the food at The Peacock bears some similarity to what is on offer there, in that it is simple and done well, without frills, flourishes, or touches of cheffiness. It is exactly the kind of food that a place such as this needs, with the emphasis on good ingredients at affordable prices.
There are no desserts per se, so we ordered a Peacock bun - basically unremarkable puff pastry doused in sugar syrup - and a dry brownie that tasted as if it wasn't in the first flush of youth. We ate only a couple of mouthfuls of the latter. With a bottle of tempranillo (at €27 perhaps more heftily priced than it warranted) and a couple of bottles of water, our bill came to €63.80 before service.
Whatever about catering for its existing customers, the people who have bought tickets to see plays and are coming for a pre-show bite, the function of a café in a cultural institution such as The Abbey is to entice in those who are not yet customers, in the hope that they will be 'turned' - exposed to what is going on and encouraged to engage. In positioning the food offering as they have done, The Abbey is to be commended for reaching out to the local community and providing them with a more than decent café to supplement what was previously available in the area. It's a step in the right direction towards turning the national theatre into a vibrant hub for the cultural and intellectual life of the city, and with its free WiFi and avowed policy of being happy for people to linger all day over a single cup of coffee, it's a fine alternative to international chains. The coffee is better too.
ON A BUDGET
Warm artisan rolls cost €5.50 apiece. Options include pulled beef with salad, goat's cheese with radish and cucumber, free-range chicken with tarragon, and ham and cheese.
ON A BLOW OUT
Dinner at the Peacock Café is not going to blow the bank, but soup, the daily braise, and a cake slice for two, with a bottle of wine, would set you back €67.20 before coffee or service.
THE HIGH POINT
That the National Theatre finally has a food offering, and it's good.
THE LOW POINT
A brownie that could have been fresher, and that no-one asked if there was a problem with it.
9/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
With all the talk about the risks of processed meat, there's been little distinction between industrially processed food made in factories, and artisan products made the old-fashioned way, using methods of preserving that have been in existence for centuries. So while no one should be under any illusion that a daily helping of billy roll is going to do anything for their health, there's little to suggest that we need to forsake the occasional breakfast of dry-cured bacon and handmade sausages made from proper free-range porkers.