Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co Wicklow.
Tel: 0404 40116
Love blossoms in romantic garden café
Oh the early days of romance, when your skeletons are entombed behind a yellowing wedding dress and a box of old love letters in the spare-room wardrobe. When the serendipity of your mutual availability seems miraculous and tiny revelations morph into ringing endorsements of your suitability.
Covert examination of the other's book shelves, bathroom cabinets and iPod play lists scream unanimously. Yes! Yes! Yes! Not even Facebook can throw up portents of how and when it will all go wrong.
No, such is your blind determination to coax this one over the finishing line, you will shave your legs twice a day, you will smell like heaven, you will sparkle with wit and charm and geniality.
The mystery of why there is not already a lovesick man stretched in obeisance before the altar of your all-round fabulousness will only add to your feminine mystique as he leads you down the maple path in Mount Usher Gardens, and you beguile him by murmuring the names of all the flowers: agapanthus, rhododendron, azalea.
Thank Christ for the internet -- for without it, I would never have found what the readers of BBC Gardeners' World voted "the most romantic garden" in Ireland. And though my horticultural blagging seemed to be doing the trick, it was exhausting, and, besides, I needed to pee.
So I pulled a strand of wild garlic from the ground, crushed the flower between my fingers, and, waving the mulch beneath his nostrils, I turned to Professor McGuffin and said: "Don't know about you, but I'm starving, let's have lunch."
The garden café in Mount Usher is part of the Avoca group. Now, I'm not sold on their shabby-chic knick-knackery: fairy-cake mountains and elderflower lemonade are a bit too Lewis Carroll for my liking, but they do dish up a good feed, in fairness to them.
We took a table in the garden, beneath a weeping cherry blossom. McGuffin ordered a glass of Ancora Pinot Grigio , I had a glass of Cuvée Orelie Chardonnay.
"So this is what you call work," he said, tapping his menu off the table. "Drinking wine in the middle of day." I bit my tongue and replied that it wasn't as easy as it looked. But here's the problem with having a big mouth -- the words "we don't all have public service pensions in the offing, sweetheart", spilled out, followed by a hollow, and somewhat pathetic disclaimer: "I'm only joking."
McGuffin bristled and we spent the next five minutes reading the menu in silence.
He forgave me with the pronouncement that he'd be having monkfish to start.
"Fantastic," I replied, eager to move things back into the private -- and hopefully intimate -- sector. Mercifully, the monkfish was fantastic. Pan-fried with a soft golden finish -- to seal the flavour into the firm buttery texture -- it peeled apart in pristine white chunks that sang with freshness and nuances of lime and chilli.
It came aboard a plate of young salad greens: rocket, chard and shavings of marinated chicory. Fresh chilli and purple sprouting broccoli added colour and vibrancy to the mix (€8.95). Perfection.
Duck liver pâté (€7.95) was served in a thick, smokey slab studded with pistachio nuts to counter the unctuous texture, while dried apricots and dates mellowed the gamey intensity. It was a heart stopper alright, the final nail hammered in with a butter lid. Again it came with young mixed leaves, some chewy toasted sourdough that was flecked with olives, and a jammy, old-fashioned apple chutney.
Ah yes, we had survived the choppy waters of political discourse, and for fear of another relapse I made a mental note to expunge the words "Croke Park Agreement" from my vocabulary.
And on we waltzed to the main course. While the choice of starters was limited, there was plenty to chew over on the main menu. Salads of substance included Serrano with Coolea and honey cress (€14.95), and a classic mix of goat's cheese, beetroot and hazelnut, accompanied by quinoa, blood orange and pickled artichoke (€13.95).
There was also a generous-sounding antipasti platter, featuring charcuterie, tapenade, hummus, tomato pesto, olives and cornichons with toasted sourdough (€16.95).
From a list of hot dishes that included vegetable tikka masala, seafood linguine and Avoca fish pie, I chose a Spanish seafood stew (€15.95), which was packed with good-quality chorizo, the smoky paprika and garlic oil really gave the chunks of cod a kick, but I wasn't convinced by the salmon -- the chorizo was sweet and oily enough, thank you.
The bulk in this rustic tomato stew came from waxy, new-season baby spuds -- a good addition.
McGuffin's Castletownbere crab salad (€14.95) was a delicate, creamy affair, bound with crème fraiche and strips of fennel for aniseed bite, its sidekicks included segments of green apple and grapefruit. It was summery and demure, but its refinement was somewhat undermined by the presence of a hefty doorstop of toasted brown poppy-seed loaf, which, aside from being burnt, was awkward and onerous.
Dessert (€5.75) yielded a return to fancy -- in the form of a pretty blackberry posset, crowned with a spoonful of cream, while sugared shortbread played chaperone. My appetite rebels against such tweeness, but McGuffin -- disclosing an unexpected sweet tooth -- ravaged it with breathtaking zeal.
I filled his coffee cup from our cafetiere a deux, and waited. "That was fun," he said -- eventually. Then, leaning over and pressing a stolen anemone into my hand, he asked: "When will I see you again?"
What could I say? God bless you Monty Don.
TYPICAL DISH: Avoca fish pie
THE DAMAGE: €78.27 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, two glasses of wine, coffee
ON THE STEREO: Birdsong
AT THE TABLE: Daytrippers
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