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Refuel: Bibi’s Café & Dolls Boutique * * * * *

I'm in the market for a new frock. Not an ordinary frock -- a good frock. My last good frock -- a billowing silk affair -- met with an accident about six weeks ago. An ugly episode involving a bicycle, a Derryman and a skinful. Half of it got caught in the bicycle chain, the other half, the Derryman is using to polish his cutlery. Or so he says.

Now that the scabs have gone, dignity has been restored and I'm ready for a new frock. That's how I ended up in Dolls boutique on Emorville Avenue -- a shrine to elegance and style, worshipped by many, affordable to a few.

I dawdled a while, pawing the delicate fabrics, trying to envisage myself in a demure yellow tea dress but, when it came down to it, I didn't feel worthy. I, who use the hem of my skirt to wipe snot from a toddler's nose.

Yes, there's a place for people like me, and it's not Doll's boutique. And that place is the adjoining café, which I wouldn't have found if it wasn't for the fruitless frock hunt.

The moment I stepped over the saddle of the door, heard Johnny Cash on the stereo and spied a mountain made of cake, I knew that this was meant to be.

And, speaking of serendipity, who did I spy sitting on his lonesome in the corner but The Terminal Bachelor. He inquired loudly if I was "on the job". To which the only reply is "always". That's great, he said, I'm starving.

The convenience of having an accomplice to hand overshot my curiosity about what The Bachelor was doing in a boutique café in the first place. I was just about to ask him, when she walked in the door: the prettiest darn waitress in town.

Blinded by lust, he was oblivious to the fact that he stuck out like a sartorial sore thumb. And, to be honest, surrounded by fashion writers, stylists and at least one photographer, I was feeling rather dowdy myself.

The boutique was one thing, and the beautiful waitress another, but I soon found myself coveting Bibi's lovely moss-green tableware, her funky chairs, her soft grey wood panelling -- so painfully, obviously Farrow and Ball.

Swinging from admiration to resentment with a burgeoning sense of inadequacy, the only thing preventing me from going home, kneeling on the cold linoleum floor and sticking my head in the oven, was the mean and distant prospect that my review of Bibi's Café would be a parable decrying the preponderance of style over substance.

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I was, as Patsy Cline, would say, so-uh-oh wrong. The menu at Bibi's -- posted on a blackboard that doubles as a door -- is deceptively simple. We're talking soups, salads and sandwiches in every crusty mutation imaginable. There are a couple of warm dishes too, and it was with one of these that I kicked off. Pea and haloumi fritters served with mango salsa.

Not the most palatable prospect, you might say. Scamorza, raclette and the suburban epidemic of deep-fried Brie have, each in their own way, turned me against hot cheese. But this was different, the gold-crusted haloumi was creamy and saline, soft and oozy in texture, its oiliness subdued by a spray of sweet green peas. The showstopper, however, was a ramekin of mango, chilli, lime and finely diced onion. It was exotic, zingy and fresh.

The choice of sandwiches included a "pan toastie" with ham and Gubeen, bruschetta topped with either "smoked salmon, basil & lemon cream cheese, and pickled red onion", or "broad bean & feta mash, bacon, and lemon oil". I liked the sound of that, but The Bachelor wanted a more manly sambo, so he chose ciabatta topped with tapenade, salami, tomato and mozzarella. A list of ingredients cannot do justice to how delicious this actually was. It boils down to quality and absolute freshness.

Portions are generous and each of the dishes came with a well-dressed salad, so we could have stopped there, but I pushed on in the name of research and greed. A plate of three salads included sweet potato dressed with pecans and maple-syrup dressing, cherry tomato and feta cheese, and an irresistible bale of crunchy French beans.

Coffee was intense and excellent. Our dessert, a chocolate brownie streaked with peanut butter, was sheer indulgence. Wine is served by the glass or bottle. The house white Vin de Pays de Haut Poitau -- a soft, easy-drinking Sauvignon -- has been Rick Stein's house wine for years, and no wonder; we each had a (giant) glass, and then ordered a bottle to take home.

Home? Why would you want to go home when you could eat so well and so cheaply chez Bibi? If I have one quibble, it's that the boutique occupies valuable floor space that could be used by the café. It's a fact of life: people who eat cake take up more room than people who buy dresses. Trust me.

TYPICAL DISH: Sandwiches


THE DAMAGE: €56.85 for two dishes, a salad plate, a dessert, two coffees, two glasses of wine, and one bottle of wine to go

ON THE STEREO: Johnny Cash

AT THE TABLE: Style fascists

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