Sunday 18 August 2019

Restaurant review: 'This is a small restaurant with a big personality, and I love it'

Alma, 12 South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin 8. alma.ie

Little wonder: This small café delivers a flavoursome, punchy menu
Little wonder: This small café delivers a flavoursome, punchy menu
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

'Temperature needs to cool down before you can use iPhone' are not words that you expect to encounter on your screen in Ireland, but if you sit up at the window in Alma this summer, then you might just. No matter, it's a novelty, and if it really bothers you then there's a blind that you can pull down, although that means obliterating the South Circular Road streetscape.

I'd made a couple of attempts to visit Alma for weekend brunch and failed. The modest Argentinian-owned café is clearly not a secret - especially amongst a cohort of the young, beautiful and Spanish-speaking - and doesn't take bookings, meaning that you either have to be waiting on the doorstep when it opens or be prepared to be patient if you want to sample the dulce de leche pancakes with brandy and orange mascarpone, seasonal fruits topped with orange zest, mint and candied almonds that people keep telling me about. (That dish costs a tenner, by the way; you can add bacon for €2.75.)

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So instead I drop in for a solo midweek lunch - yes, I'm Katy No Mates again - and am seated straight away by a woman so naturally smiley and charming that the warmth of her welcome is almost disconcerting. It's true that some people just have that natural hospitality gene - she could have offered me fake meat chicken wings and I would have ordered and eaten them and told her they were amazing. She and all the other front-of-house people - all women and, I assume, all from Argentina - are delightful, a feature of Alma upon which everyone who visits comments.

The interior is simple yet stylish in a low-key way, with one central communal table, a few tables for two and some stools at a counter in the window. The menu is short, offering sandwiches, lunch dishes and all-day options (including THOSE pancakes), many with an Argentinian twist, and you can pimp things up with side orders of avocado, chorizo, black pudding, extra eggs and the like.

A substantial salad bowl of sautéed kale, spiced chickpeas, pickled onions and carrots topped with a couple of perfect soft-poached free-range eggs comes tossed in an anchovy and tahini dressing, and makes for a filling and tasty lunch, enhanced by an optional side of spicy, caramelised chorizo.

The 'loaded batata' features a whole grilled sweet potato submerged under an Argentinian sausage ragu, with fresh peas, spiced nuts, herbs, leaves and lime sour cream. It's not a huge portion, but the flavours and textures are spot on.

Both dishes come with a slice of organic sourdough from Tartine Bakery, one of a number of good suppliers name-checked on the menu; others include Gubbeen (chorizo) and Irish Gaucho (the Argentinian sausages).

A small cup of tomato, red pepper, basil and Parmesan soup is delicious.

By way of something sweet, a substantial slice of banana and pistachio bread with dulce de leche is not quite as decadent as it sounds (more caramel needed) but still good, while the coconut and raspberry dark chocolate-coated 'bounty' bar is in danger of giving vegan treats a good name.

A good iced macchiato - the coffee comes from Two Fifty Square in Rathmines - could have been colder, served in a bigger glass with more ice.

A notice on the wall explains that the café is too small to welcome dogs, but that a percentage of profits goes to the ISPCA, and there's a hitching station and (caffeine-free) water outside if you want to tether a pooch while you drop in to collect coffee or food to take away.

Lunch for two (I took half of the food home; all dishes are available to take away) came to €38.75 before service. There is a constant stream of regulars who clearly know they are onto a good thing and a couple of tables outside on the pavement that are much sought after when the sun shines.

Alma is a small restaurant with a big personality and I love it.

THE RATING

8/10 food

10/10 ambience

8/10 value

26/30

ON A BUDGET

At breakfast, Tartine sourdough bread with butter, homemade dulce de leche and seasonal jam costs €3.70.

ON A BLOW-OUT

Alma's not a blow-out kind of a place but, if you really pushed it, mains, soup, soft drinks, sweet things and coffees for two would cost around €50 including service.

THE HIGH POINT

Happy staff, happy food, happy customers.

THE LOW POINT

The high tables for two are too close together.

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