Restaurant review: Avoca Garden Cafe, Wicklow
- 'A Sweetcorn Veloute is excellent but a Bric Crab Spring Roll dull'
- Avoca Garden Cafe, Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co Wicklow. (0404) 40116
It's one of those 'will it, won't it?' Irish summer days and, although there's been a notion to head to Mount Usher for lunch for a week or so, it's touch and go until just before we set off as to whether the rain will hold off.
Plan B involves lunch in the city, but the prospect of getting out into the country for a spin and lunch outside in the open air is alluring to our little gang of three.
For garden groupies, Mount Usher is a definite bucket list visit, one of only three Irish gardens to garner a top rating from the UK's Good Gardens Guide. And for another type of garden groupie, the (not insignificant) sub-set that lusts after Monty Don in his crumpled blue suits, with the faithful Nigel (his golden retriever) by his side, the fact that Mount Usher makes it into the telly gardener's worldwide Top 10 is another incentive. (A few years ago, I holidayed at the same hotel in Kerala as Mr Don, and the frisson of excitement that ran around the pool whenever he appeared to occupy a sun lounger was something to behold. The yoga classes in which he participated were heavily over-subscribed.)
The gardens at Mount Usher, set in the sheltered Vartry river valley, are home to a fine collection of trees and shrubs with informal floral planting. Designed to ensure what estate agents like to call 'year-round interest', the gardens display a seasonally changing palette of colours and textures complemented by wafting scents.
Mount Usher is known as a Robinsonian garden, with a relaxed and informal layout. William Robinson was an Irish gardener whose work spanned the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. He is credited with popularising the English cottage garden style which sat easily alongside the simple homespun vernacular of the British Arts and Crafts movement. His most influential book, The Wild Garden, espoused a garden philosophy and aesthetic that was the antithesis of the regimented Victorian planting schemes that had gone before.
Inspired by Robinson, Edward Walpole, a scion of the Walpole family, who had made their money in linen, bought an old mill on a couple of acres, and designed and planted the gardens at Mount Usher in the mid-1880s. Subsequent generations of Walpoles continued Edward's work, buying more land and adding elegant weirs and bridges, passing the estate down through the generations.
In 1980, Madelaine Jay bought Mount Usher and continued the tradition of wild - and chemical-free - gardening; her son, Konrad Jay, is now its custodian. The Jays entered into an arrangement with Avoca when Madelaine Jay retired in 2007, at the age of 85, and the group has been running the restaurant in the shopping courtyard every since.
We booked a table inside but it's fine enough to make the short wait for a table outside worthwhile.
We are all familiar with the Avoca schtick by now, but it's been a while since I ate in any of the restaurants. There are common threads running between them, but each has its own menu that differs slightly from that of its siblings. So while there are dishes that seem familiar from other Avocas, there are others that do not.
A Sweetcorn Veloute with charred corn and lime yoghurt has excellent flavour, but a Bric Crab Spring Roll is a dull business, the crab tasteless, made marginally more interesting by the pickled vegetables on the plate. "They threw the chilli at that from the corner of the room," says my dining companion, Paddy.
The Higgins smoked beef burger is a fine thing, the meat succulent, topped with mature cheddar and a too-sweet red onion marmalade that does the dish no favours. The romesco sauce that accompanies it is another matter - it's much better - and the chips are good, as is the generous portion of well-dressed leaves, radish and cucumber on the side.
Smoked Beef Chipotle is a dish that's sold in the Avoca Food Halls and that I have bought on occasion as a wholesome ready meal. It's tasty, and here it comes with soft grilled tortillas, Pico de Gallo salsa, guacamole and sour cream.
Lemon Tart with Lemon Sorbet divides us - Paddy is a fan, but I find the tart too thick and the pastry lacking texture. The filling has good flavour though, sharp but not too sharp. Dark Chocolate Mousse with Hazelnut Praline is a disappointment. It's not dark, for one thing, being the colour of a Dairy Milk bar. The portion is far too big, for another, and the taste is insipid. It doesn't need the big blob of cream on top, but the two little shortbread biscuits on the side are melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous, and the praline provides textural interest.
With a side of broccoli with almonds, one glass of wine, a pair of decent Americanos and a pot of tea, the bill for three comes to €114.18 including a service charge of 10pc.
Our fellow customers are brazening it out against incipient rain as we leave, reaching for the Avoca blankets and stoles that have prudently been made available. We agree to return for a garden visit in the spring.
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
That sweetcorn soup is €6.45.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Avoca is far too decorous an institution for a blow-out, but if you had duck liver pâté to start, followed by courgette and feta fritters, and the vanilla, lime and pistachio semi-freddo, the bill for two would come to €64.80 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The gardens at Mount Usher are among the finest in Ireland, and there will be something to please the pickiest and plainest of eaters on the Avoca menu.
THE LOW POINT
The dark chocolate mousse just wasn't.