Every city needs an iconic cafe, the kind of place that appears in guide books but is also frequented by locals, rich and poor alike, writes Joe McNamee.
Paris has Café Angelina and its out of this world hot chocolate, New Orleans has the Café du Monde with its delicious fried doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and its bitter but strangely addictive chicory coffee.
Dublin has Bewley’s and I’ve whiled away many an afternoon there since the 1990s and even visited it regularly when it was a Café-Bar-Deli pizza joint.
After a major refurbishment and several million euro Bewley’s finally opened its doors again in November and there has been a queue outside ever since.
We arrived at around 2.30pm hoping that the lunchtime rush might have eased but there was still a queue of around eight people at the door.
Pleasingly this moved quickly and we found ourselves inside and seated in under 10 minutes at a small two-top table in the centre of the floor with a good view of the restored Harry Clarke windows which looked utterly sumptuous.
This was not the best table but we were happy enough as it was good for people watching.
Ideally you want to be sitting in a booth near one of the lit fires or on the Mezzanine with a view of Grafton Street.
This is a soft opening until March so the menu is short with a choice of two soups — Potato and Leek or Butternut Squash and six different sandwiches including: Ham Baguette, Halloumi and Pickled Beetroot on Spelt, Turkey and Ham on Sliced Pan, and Ham and Gruyere Cheese Croissant.
My Butternut Squash Soup (€7) was a decent portion and had classic earthy sweet squash flavours and the addition of toasted pumpkin seeds worked well.
The Bewley’s Brown Bread on the side was good but strangely came with no butter and distracting one of the busy staff members proved impossible so I ate it dry.
For sandwiches we opted for Prawns & Marie-Rose Sauce with cress, cucumber, iceberg lettuce in a Brioche Bun (€8.50) and a Smoked Irish Salmon with gribiche sauce with pickle, cucumber on a bamboo charcoal Brioche Bun (€9).
The Prawn Sandwich was of reasonable quality if a little bland and could have done with more than six prawns the size of your little finger.
The Salmon was easily the better of the two with a reasonable portion of tender smoked salmon and punchy flavours from the pickles and tarragon mustard. The Charcoal Brioche was a pleasing black colour but otherwise seemed to taste of just decent regular brioche.
The sad little pile of mixed leaves on the side were tired and bitter tasting (and not in a radicchio way).
So far so acceptable, but now the bad news.
My Fairtrade Colombian Filter Coffee (‘specially selected by our master blender’) tasted intensely bitter and stewed with none of the elegant acidity and nutty caramel notes associated with good Colombian coffee. Later I ordered an ‘Espresso’ which promised: ‘hints of pineapple, brown sugar and lime’; however my tasting note read: ‘intensely bitter and unpleasant with no fruit notes but rather notes of cigarette ash and burnt sugar.’
It didn’t help that what actually arrived was not an ‘espresso’ but a ‘ristretto’ which intensified the bitterness — the charcoal and ash flavours stayed with me for over an hour.
The current fashion for lightly roasted coffees to emphasise the blend’s fruits and freshness seems not to be in fashion with Bewley’s roasters.
My guest’s Lapsang Souchong was pronounced ‘good’ but I found it a rather lacking in richness — perhaps good old-fashioned breakfast tea would be a better choice.
So yes Bewley’s still serves sticky buns, cherry buns and brack but we opted for a Chocolate Éclair which had good cream filling but a rather heavy dense choux pastry.
Apple Baba with a vanilla cream and a tiny pipette of rum was better with soft sponge and good apple flavours.
So this has been a poor review but I do still urge you to go see the Clarke windows and order a sticky bun, but you may want to eschew coffee for water.
Lunch for two including a soup, two sandwiches, two cakes, three coffees and one Lapsang Souchong cost €48.50
Sunday 9am – 8pm
Bewley’s Oriental Cafe, Grafton St, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-5640900; www.bewleys.com
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