Refuel: Village Café * * * *
170 Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin. Telephone: 014975130
January is a terrible time for restaurant reviewing. Lots of places close and you'll generally find, with the ones that stay open, the waiters are out of sorts and the food is out of season.
Add to your woes Arctic snow, ungritted roads, cancelled buses, a closed crèche, one flu-stricken babysitter and a toddler with three weeks' pent-up energy. If I had to build my own toboggan and eat frozen crow, all the snowmen in Ireland couldn't have stopped me from bringing you this week's review.
And it wasn't supposed to be the Village Café either. It was supposed to be a place in north Co Dublin, which will have gone out of fashion by the time I get around to it again. But let us not dwell on that, nor on the bad weather, but let us talk instead of small blessings. I'm no great believer in silver linings, but the truth is I would not have ventured into the Village Café had the roads been gritted.
Now, I like to travel light through life, so when I have a bad experience I try not to let it stick. This also applies to restaurants -- if a place sucks, I do my utmost to purge the details from my memory and I don't go back. Suffice to say that, based on (distant) past experience, I should not have been returning to the Village Café. But in such "extraordinary", "unprecedented" and "exceptional" times as these, it is, perhaps, time to stop making proclamations such as "never". The Village Café has evidently had a transfusion of new blood and has duly pulled its socks up to its hiney.
It is, I'd say, a well-kept secret -- full of laptop-tapping regulars loathe to give up their spot. The waiters are foreign, handsome and surprisingly polished for such a modest establishment. There's free Wi-Fi and good cutlery, which always puts me at ease. Parking my hindquarters alongside a stove heater to defrost, I ordered a glass of Tempranillo and took to reading the brief-bordering-on-curt lunch menu, which changes daily and is posted in black marker on a light box on the wall.
There was little choice, and judging by the rate things were being 86-ed, I was eager to order. The options were: roasted duck leg with mashed potato and gravy, citrus salmon, tortilla espanola, beef and mushroom stew, and Spanish-style meatballs. Thankfully, my accomplice -- The Cartoonist -- arrived before the larder was pillaged and brought with him a decisive appetite.
Starting with soup -- for that was the only starter -- we instantly began to thaw out. Normally I don't go for broccoli in soup, but this was just what the meteorologist ordered. It was cut with carrot for sweetness, cream for smoothness and a smidgen of coriander for zest. Curious to try as much of the menu as we could, we negotiated a starter-sized portion of the Spanish meatballs, which were truly delicious. Prepared with lamb, they had more than a touch of the Moor about them, earthy with a good spicy kick of cumin and a rich coating of tangy tomato sauce. They came with a dome of wispy parsley-flecked couscous and dressed salad leaves.
The tortilla espanola was a fluffy yellow wedge studded with peppers, peas and waxy cubes of potato. The execution was perfect, finished with a golden tinge and not a trace of grease. Again, it came with couscous and salad. With a choice of duck, beef or salmon, I took a gamble on the fish. In general, I prefer my salmon unadorned, crowning it with orange zest and breadcrumbs seems like too much foostering around to me, and so it was. The fish was overcooked and lacking in natural oiliness. I suppose spanking fresh fish is not available when the country grinds to a halt.
For dessert, we shared a wonderfully gooey chocolate brownie that surprised us with hidden pockets of raspberry and cream cheese (don't knock it 'til you've tried it).
The Village Café stays open into the evening, and I am curious -- no, impatient -- to try the dinner menu. It may be small and simple, but it's hands down the best place to eat in Rathmines. And to think I would have passed it over if it wasn't for the snow.