Our food critic samples the back-to-basics cuisine at this charming Wicklow café
Avoca in its early, family-run days was very different to the current version owned and operated by controversial multinational Aramark. (The corporation holds the catering contracts for several Direct Provision centres, and photos of some of the meals served to residents don’t look too appetising.) There’s a lot at risk when a food business scales. How do you grow and still maintain the quality and ethos you had at the outset while serving ever-greater numbers of customers? When it comes to food, small is almost always more beautiful.
Certainly, there are many who are nostalgic for the pre-Aramark Avoca of old; for the generous abundance of the plates piled high with salads and the scones as big as your head; for the slightly wonky, home-made feel — and taste — of it all. And others who won’t put money in Aramark’s coffers on principle.
What’s all this got to do with The Roundwood Stores, you may be wondering. The connection is Simon Pratt, a member of the Pratt family who founded Avoca and the person who led the food side of the business.
Since leaving his role at Avoca after the sale to Aramark, Pratt and his family moved to Roundwood in Co Wicklow. They loved everything about their new rural life — the peace and quiet, the space to grow vegetables — but with only a convenience store in the village, found themselves lacking decent coffee and proper sourdough. Plus, they wanted to meet people, to become part of the community.
And so, at a time when he might have been expected to be focussing on his golf swing, Pratt, his wife, Monique McQuaid (who ran her own catering business for many years), and her son, Jake McCarthy (a young baker who studied classics at Trinity before working in restaurants such as Forest & Marcy and Bastible, and at Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall), together decided to do something about it. They teamed up with head chef Sophie Woodroofe (ex-Avoca) and opened The Roundwood Stores — part café, part bakery, part grocer — this time last year. To say that the locals are only delighted would be an understatement.
On a warm day, we call in for lunch, nabbing the last table outside in a courtyard that’s charmingly higgledy piggledy. There are a few tables inside, too, and in the colder months, there’s a fire inside and a stove outside. The menu changes each week according to whatever fruits and vegetables are in season and the café’s organic growers, including Dermot Carey in Athy and Hazel Nairn and Davi Leon in Devil’s Glen, can deliver.
We try a properly tasty tomato, rosemary and cannellini bean soup with a hunk of excellent sourdough (€7.95), and the day’s salads — one of nutty pearl barley with peach, goat’s cheese, chard and hazelnuts, and another of tenderstem broccoli, sugar snap peas, green beans and samphire, with garlic and chilli oil mint and coriander, the latter reminiscent of one you might find in Avoca but oh so much better (€5.95 for a half-and-half plate of the two).
There’s a fine happy-egg quiche of melted leeks, peas and feta — the pastry is very good — for €7.95, and a kimchi fritter sandwich on focaccia (also €7.95) with miso-roasted mushrooms, scallion mayo, baby gem and pickled red cabbage. Our only gripe is that the sourdough focaccia, good as it is, is just too much as a sandwich bread, and the brilliant flavours of the filling get slightly lost. We finish with a peach and pistachio galette (€3.50), the wholemeal pastry wonderfully buttery and crumbly.
We bring home breads, a few different focaccias (tomato and mozzarella, red onion and gorgonzola, and another with broccoli, nduja and potato), along with a spinach strudel and fabulous sausage rolls, the higher-welfare pork from butcher Martin Sikula in Rathdrum. For those with a sweet tooth, the surprisingly extensive range of baked goods is reason enough to pay a visit.
I get the sense from Pratt that he’s finding it refreshing to be involved in one small place rather than a big business, and that it’s a relief to have gone back to first principles — to have a kitchen making everything from the stock to the mayo to the sourdough from scratch. He enjoys picking the leaves and vegetables from his garden each morning and driving them down to the café. He doesn’t seem to mind that one of his and McQuaid’s jobs is the deep clean on a Tuesday, and that they bring the tea towels home each evening to wash in their machine. But in news that may come as a disappointment to those hoping for an Avoca Mark 2, he’s adamant there will only ever be one Roundwood Stores.
Breakfast of sourdough toast with Coolea cheese and cultured butter will set you back €4.95.
Three courses would cost you €40 for two, but it would be too much food.
The Roundwood Stores, Main Street, Roundwood, Co Wicklow, Instagram: @roundwoodstores