Monday 23 October 2017

Luncheonette: 'The food is not just cheap, it is also good'

Luncheonette, NCAD, Thomas Street, Dublin 8. Facebook: LuncheonetteDublin

Democratic canteen food: Luncheonette on Thomas Street. Photo: Tony Gavin
Democratic canteen food: Luncheonette on Thomas Street. Photo: Tony Gavin

Katy McGuinness

Years ago, when I lived in New York, there was a restaurant called La Lunchonette (sic) on Essex Street between Rivington and Stanton on the Lower East Side. The chef was Jean-Francois Fraysse and he was good, bringing a punk sensibility to classic French bistro dishes.

For a few years, it was my favourite restaurant - I ate there at least once a week - and then it closed and I left the city, and that was that. I only recently realised that Fraysse reopened the restaurant in Chelsea a couple of years later and that I could have eaten there again. But now La Lunchonette is gone for good; the building owner got an offer that he couldn't refuse and Fraysse's lease was not renewed.

Everyone should have a restaurant in which they are a regular, where they feel at home, not least because it is good to have somewhere that will find you a table at short notice, and will save the last order of côte de boeuf for you because they know that's what you like. In all the column inches about AA Gill that were written last month, the details that I enjoyed the most were about his relationship with an Italian restaurant called Riva in Barnes, where he ate a couple of times a week, marking special occasions such as the christening of his twins there, dispensing with the menu, and telling the kitchen to bring "everything".

It's clear that Luncheonette in NCAD on Thomas Street has a loyal regular clientèle. A friend who works nearby, in The Digital Hub, tells me that she eats lunch there every day of the week. She says that we should meet at 12.15pm to avoid the queue. This sounds a tad over-anxious to me but, sure enough, we are by no means first and, by the time that we are leaving at 1.30pm, there are a couple of dozen people waiting patiently to be served.

So what is it about a modest café in an art college that attracts 350 customers a day?

It would be disingenuous to say that the prices - as unassuming as the premises - don't contribute to Luncheonette's popularity. We ordered just about everything on the menu and our lunch for two came to €18.50, which we rounded up to €20 for friendly counter service. (At Luncheonette you eat at big communal tables and clear up after yourself.)

But the food is not just cheap, it's also good. Luncheonette offers the kind of democratic canteen food that every schoolchild, student and worker in the country should be able to access. The menu changes every day, and the lunch offering always includes a soup, salad and sandwich. Today, the soup was If Burrito was a Soup with basmati rice and smoky yoghurt, so there's a little more to it than your average café soup and it comes in a huge bowl. It would make a sustaining lunch on its own: rustic, nourishing and well-seasoned, full of beans and rice and flavour, and it costs just €3.

The salad features shaved Brussels sprouts with dates, lemon, hazelnut, and pomegranate topped with grilled halloumi cheese. The dressing could do with more citrus, as the dates and pomegranate make the salad over-sweet, but really this is nitpicking. It's a fine portion of fresh food and the price is €4. A huge ham sandwich, made with ham that Luncheonette bakes itself, comes on rye bread and features dill-pickled cucumber, lettuce, and "our mayonnaise". It's €3.50.

By way of dessert, we take away a slice of densely damp orange and rosemary poundcake, and a chocolate brownie topped with sticky coffee caramel that's rather delicious. Each costs €2. Gingery probiotic soda is better than all the commercial versions that I've tried, and mint tea (€1) is literally overflowing with handfuls of fresh mint. Protein balls - mysteriously called Chokladbollar - are €1 apiece and they too are damn fine; the consistency dense and properly chocolatey.

I call Jennie Moran, the woman behind Luncheonette, to find out a little more. I'm curious about the café, how it came about, and the secret to its singular charm. Jennie graduated from NCAD with a degree in sculpture in 2005, and worked as a full-time artist for a number of years in and around Dublin. She says she was always fascinated by the concept of hospitality, the mysterious alchemy of a thousand different things that come together to make somewhere a place that people want to be, and the sneaky ways there are to encourage people to delay there, how food can be used to get people to spend more time together in an unselfconscious way.

NCAD's café closed back in 2012, and Jennie said she hated to think of the students having nothing to nourish them through long studio sessions, so she started to bring hot soup in one day a week. After a while - and with no formal training in food - she asked if she could reopen the canteen and, to her surprise, she ended up with the keys. She spent the summer making furniture and light fittings.

THE RATING

8/10 food

8/10 ambience

9/10 value for money

25/30

ON A BUDGET

Everything at Luncheonette is pocket-friendly, but a breakfast bowl of porridge with cream, roasted hazelnuts and honey is just €2.

ON A BLOW-OUT

Soup and a sandwich, followed by brioche pudding and coffee will set you back €10.40.

THE HIGH POINT

High-quality, nourishing food at prices that make it affordable for everyone. And the protein balls are delicious, which is not a sentence I ever thought I would write.

THE LOW POINT

Luncheonette is only open during NCAD's term-time.

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