Smack bang in the middle of lunching hour, it is the first time I’ve encountered a queue to enter the English Market.
There's a good 15 or so bodies ahead of us, most masked up and waiting patiently so La Daughter, Johnny Guru and I duly ready face coverings and fall in behind.
Most restaurants and cafes appear to be taking to the new playing field with the doughty resolution that marks out a true hospitality stalwart, who only knows to plough on regardless through thick and thin, making the best of all challenges and the courage of their response to this near-impossible one has been inspirational and moving.
Sad to say, however, I’ve also noticed several rather more cavalier operations for whom the coronavirus appears not to have happened at all and whose infinitely more casual approach to the safety of their staff and customers is disappointing to say the least.
Accordingly, I’ve found myself fetching up to some venerable old favourites, seeking the comfort and reassurance of the familiar and using their new systems of operating as a means to gauge the industry at large.
Despite the queues to enter the market, The Farmgate itself is curiously quiet at the height of lunchtime. Even though it has been to the forefront of my mind for months, it still takes a second or two to register that, of course, less seats equates to less diners.
When you’ve been used to piloting one of the great Irish hospitality machines, a powerful beast when operating at full throttle, which the Farmgate traditionally has done from early morning ’til evening, it must be disconcerting for proprietor Rebecca Harte to hold so much in reserve, never needing to climb too much beyond second gear, yet, as we take our seats in the enclosed restaurant, I experience the sedate serenity as a selfish pleasure.
With tables and diners removed, there is greater expanse of window, bringing the arches of the market’s vaulted roof right into the room.
With current travel advice and restrictions sorely testing the itchy feet of both JG and I, sitting on a leather banquette, surrounded by dark timber fittings and timeless checkerboard black and white tiled floor, for a moment we both travel vicariously, sharing a sense we are in somehow in continental Europe, far from the rainy ‘Aul Sod.
The sense of place may be Viennese coffee house but the sense of plate in the Farmgate is indubitably Irish. JG has his ‘dinner in the middle of the day’, roast chicken, floury steamed potatoes and carrot and parsnip, and the fowl, exquisitely cooked on the bone, tender, succulent and deeply flavoursome, harks back to a time when chicken was a special treat and not the utterly devalued cheap protein of mindless modern consumption.
La Daughter has Cottage Pie, a fruity, rich stew of beef and mushroom with buttery mash piped on top served with crisp green salad leaves.
I’m tempted to go with the Farmgate’s iconic lamb stew but a big dinner in the offing later that evening means I plump for a pair of starters: creamy, balanced house pate with Carrignavar Duck & Longueville Brandy, on toasted sourdough; and lovely, lemony herbed Toonsbridge ricotta, nicely offset by sweet, tart tarragon roasted cherry tomatoes, again served on toasted sourdough, and with a sprinkling of roasted seeds on top for added crunch.
Both come with delicious crisp green leaves and I eat enough to put Brer Rabbit into a food coma, awarding myself top marks for virtuous consumption, which are then blissfully frittered when we order all five of the baked desserts to be consumed at home after dinner.
Very lovely they prove to be, a sharp/sweet Tunisian orange cake and a moist, nutty carrot cake being the pick of the bunch.
Were it not for the masks of the ever attentive staff, or the greater distance they now keep while still perfectly executing their roles, you’d be inclined to forget entirely that strange, surreal undercurrent of disquietude that seems such a common hallmark of dining out in a world of coronavirus but even those eventually become part of the new normality.
I’ve said written and said before that, on a given day, The Farmgate can be my most favourite place to dine in the world. Today, it is an especially comforting treat, a treasured link to another, less fraught time.