Mayo: Comforts of home at Cafe Rua

Cafe Rua,

Mayo: Comforts of home at Cafe Rua

Café Rua opens for dinner on Friday nights, but lunch is its bread and butter so expect lots of toasted sambos, paninis, lasagne and soup alongside the specials.

IS it a café? Is it a deli? Is it a restaurant? In fact, this tasty little template for the production, sale and enjoyment of simple Irish food is all of the above. Or at least, a little bit of all of the above.

Castlebar’s Café Rua has been open over a decade now. In that time, the torch has not only passed from Ann McMahon to her children, Aran and Colleen; it has seen a second branch (’Rua’) open with a bakery and delicatessen on Spencer Street. It has learned a trick or two, in other words, and evolved into something quite unique in the process.

I’ve driven three hours from Dublin, half of it stuck behind a car transporter dawdling along at 80kmph. By the time I park up, locate North Antrim Street and push open the door, I’m ready for a shot of comfort and a serious pick-me-up.

The first sign is encouraging. It advertises Pónaire coffee to go.

There’s a feeling when you first walk in the door of a cafe. Something clicks, or it doesn’t click.

It’s about several things. A good café needs to feel cosy without feeling crowded. It needs to have the intimacy of a living room, but spacing and control enough not to have to worry about your children knocking tea into a neighbour’s lap.

Service needs to come with a smile from staff who need to know that, although you may not expect earth-shattering food, you are looking forward to a casual reboot: a few stolen moments of company, comfort fare and no washing-up.

Café Rua ticks all of those basic boxes.

It’s full, but not too full. Tables are arranged around a small, open-plan space with bright yellow daffodils poking out of polka-dot jugs.

Tying in with the chirpy red shopfront, there’s a red lamp on the service counter, red blinds and the odd splash of red paint.

Ok, there’s a tad too much pine and lino for my taste, but that’s a minor detail — and one I’m quickly distracted from thanks to a cabinet full of Westport Grove jams, Knocknarea Honey and treats like David Llewellyn’s organic balsamic cider vinegar.

The service is straight from the good café manual — with lots of eye contact, a brief run through the menu (on blackboards), and just enough direction to help me make good choices. The first of those is a ‘Mayo Mezze’ (€10).

What’s a Mayo Mezze? Why, it’s a chopping board loaded with Carrowholly cheese, Westport quince jam and Stephen Gould’s leaves, as well as a free range egg, a dollop of Rua pate and relish, and a hunk of brown bread with Cuinneog farmhouse butter (also served in Chapter One, incidentally). Oh, and a refreshing glass of homemade lemonade.

Essentially, it’s place on a plate. I love the simple layout; the fact that it draws from farms, fields and larders just a stone’s throw away.

There’s an indulgent, Gouda-like sweetness to the cheese, the lightly-dressed leaves taste like they were picked this morning, and the pate is moist and moreish. Every café in the country should do a version.

Unfortunately, my main course — pan-fried hake with potato cake, mixed leaves and basil mayonnaise (€13.50) — doesn’t quite hit the same heights.

It arrives just a couple of minutes after I ask for it, which seems a little hasty. The top half of the fillet is dry and without glisten. The potato cake is good, the mayo nice and pungent, and I like the pomegranate seeds in the salad, but hake is hake. You can’t overcook it.

Café Rua opens for dinner on Friday nights, but lunch is its bread and butter — so expect lots of toasted sambos, paninis, lasagne and soup (potato, leek and wild garlic when I visit) alongside the specials. There are gungy cakes, tarts and brownies galore for dessert, too.

My friendly waitress recommends the upside-down cake. I ask whether it’s better warm or cold, and her reply is priceless. “If you warm it, the sugar melts ever-so-slightly. Everything is already caramelised so that works nicely.” Sold!

I finish up with a smile on my face, and that cup of Pónaire to go.

THE TAB: A three-course lunch with coffee cost €28.95; tip extra.

The Verdict:

Food: 6.5/10

Service: 7.5/10

Ambiance: 7.5/10

Drinks: 6.5/10

Value: 7/10

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