Review: Avoca Cafe, Belfast Ireland

I was too young to understand much about the Irish troubles of the 1990s. Even now I don’t really understand much about it, outside of the bastardised versions of history offered by Hollywood films such as The Devil’s Own. All I know is that there’s a Northern Ireland and a Republic of Ireland, and tourists should take care when referring to either country to ensure you don’t ruffle any feathers!

These days, it’s very easy to travel from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland to Belfast in Northern Ireland. There are regular trains and buses between the two cities, or you could do what we did and hire a car so that you can do a proper day trip to Northern Ireland, visiting amazing sites like the Giants Causeway and the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge as well as Belfast. It only takes two hours to drive from Dublin to Belfast and one hour more to drive north to the rope bridge and causeway – an easy drive for anyone used to driving in Australia!

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But first, lunch in Belfast. We were there on a Sunday which was particularly difficult as most shops and restaurants don’t seem to open until about 1pm – perhaps a result of morning church attendance in a Catholic country? Just keep that in mind if you’re ever in Belfast on a Sunday! I had my heart set on going to Avoca Cafe, reputedly one of the best places to have Irish scones in Belfast.

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It’s the type of cafe that you could very easily miss if you didn’t know it was there though! The ground floor of Avoca is primarily a lifestyle destination store, not unlike Anthropologie in America. If you walk past all the organic cotton clothes, tealight candles and garden-to-kitchen cookbooks though, you can go up the stairs in the back to their cafe and food hall on the next floor.

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The cafe orders purely pre-made food items like pies, quiches, salads, cakes and pastries – nothing is made to order. That’s not a downside though, as there’s a fantastic range to choose from and all of it is house-made rather than sourced from other supplies. To order, you just queue up at the counter before taking your order to one of the many tables scattered throughout the cafe. Be prepared to share your table with other groups, cafeteria-style – there’s not many small tables available.

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Scones were what I was after at Avoca – and they had five different varieties to offer! Only one was savoury – this Sundried Tomato Scone served with a pat of butter and spiced tomato chutney on the side. These aren’t the scones you would be used to in England or Australia – these Irish scones are much rougher, crumblier, and are hand-shaped rather than cut out with a scone cutter. This savoury scone was a lovely choice, with a great mix of seeds and nuts throughout and sprinkled on top that provided a fantastic and tasty crunch with every bite – not something you would expect with a traditionally softer scone, but very welcome all the same.

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These are two traditional sweet scones served at Avoca – a Plain Scone and a Fruit Scone. Both are served with seeded raspberry jam and butter on the side. Clotted cream is never served here – only the English have cream with their scones! The Irish prefer to use butter on their scones instead. Again, these scones are quite large, rough and crumbly, making it quite difficult to spread the hard butter evenly on the scone. I did like the sugar crust on the plain scone though, as well as how buttery the scone was.

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We ordered their other two sweet scones – a more modern blend of a Pear and Almond Scone and a Mixed Berry Scone. K found both too doughy, like a brioche-esque cake rather than a typical scone, and I have to agree with him. These scones were definitely more like a muffin than a scone, which was a bit disappointing.

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We finished off our meal with a shared Green Tea – unfortunately the teapot only held enough for one cup of tea, which I felt was a bit stingy given that it cost about 2.50 GBP. At least the scones were relatively cheap, costing between 1.50 GBP and 1.80 GBP each.

Overall, I would say that Avoca’s scones are the perfect large hearty doughy snack for the everyday Irish workingman or woman, rather than a feather-light dainty morsel served at an elegant afternoon tea with finger sandwiches. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Five scones between two people are more than ample – I’d actually just recommend ordering one each as a snack as it’s almost a meal in itself!

Avoca Cafe is located at 41 Arthur Street, Belfast Northern Ireland.

Review: Avenue, Maynooth Ireland

I have one recommendation for any Australian who visits Ireland – get out of Dublin. Dublin is a beautiful old city, but the beauty of Ireland is in its countryside, with stunning green fields, cute little farmhouses, and picturesque landscapes. It’s easy to see how Ireland got the name of the Emerald Isle.

The beautiful thing is that you actually don’t need to drive that far out of Dublin to experience a slower pace of life. You only need to drive fifteen minutes out to start seeing green fields with cows and fifteen minutes after that, you’ll come to the small town of Maynooth west of Dublin. We dropped into Maynooth for a quick lunch before heading on to Trim in the afternoon, a town with the largest surviving Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland – as well as the home of some of K’s second cousins who we were going to meet for the first time ever.

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For a smallish town, Maynooth has plenty of different cafes and restaurants which are all quite reasonably priced, appealing mainly to the university students who make up much of the population throughout the year. We chose to stop into Avenue Cafe on the main road – part daytime cafe, part nighttime restaurant, and day-round cocktail bar. It was quite busy while we were there, especially as a large family group took over half the upstairs dining area after attending a christening at one of the many nearby Catholic churches.

Basket of Spicy Chicken with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing, 13.95 Euro
Basket of Spicy Chicken with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing, 13.95 Euro

Neither of us were particularly hungry, so we decided against ordering any of the larger main meals. Instead, we started with one of their share plates – a basket of Spicy Chicken with Blue Cheese Dressing. Aussies will find these chicken wings and drummies rather small when compared to the hormone-plumped chicken we’re used to at home. However, these smaller bits of fried chicken means you get more of the delicious fried crumbing and much more of the surprisingly hot chilli sauce (the blue cheese dressing comes in handy to soften the tangy chilli sauce!). With over twenty pieces of chicken in the basket, it’s a very generous serving for two.

Soup of the Day (Thai Carrot Soup) in a 10 Euro lunch deal
Soup of the Day (Thai Carrot Soup) in a 10 Euro lunch deal

We also chose to share their daily lunch special, which is the Soup of the Day with a panini or sandwich. We had the Thai Carrot Soup that day, not something you would find on the menu of an actual Thai restaurant, but surprisingly delicious all the same. The waitress talked about how it was a creamy carrot soup blended with herbs like coriander and lemongrass, but after tasting it I suspect that it’s actually just carrot soup with a red curry paste stirred through. That’s not a bad thing, because the curry paste did provide a great flavour booster, and gave me some ideas for spicing up our own home-made vegetable soups!

Tuna Melt on Ciabatta in a 10 Euro lunch deal
Tuna Melt on Ciabatta in a 10 Euro lunch deal

The sandwich we chose to have with the soup (choose anything off their panini/sandwich menu!) was the Tuna Melt On Ciabatta. This was a great mix of tuna, sweetcorn, diced capsicum and mayonnaise on a toasted ciabatta roll, topped with a melted four cheese mix. The type of simple meal that we should make at home more often given we already have tuna sandwiches quite often – adding some diced capsicum and sweetcorn to plain tuna really makes it much yummier. We ate this as an open-faced sandwich, and dipped the other piece of ciabatta into the soup.

Earl Grey tea in a 10 Euro lunch deal
Earl Grey tea in a 10 Euro lunch deal

Included in the lunch deal is a cup of tea or coffee, and the waitress kindly upgraded the plain black breakfast tea to a more aromatic Earl Grey Tea for me at no extra charge. Interestingly they served milk on the side with the Earl Grey, rather than the more customary lemon and honey – so I chose to have it plain rather than run the risk of the milk curdling in the citrus-based Earl Grey. K ordered a Green Tea – a pleasant palate-cleansing blend.

Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding, 6.75 Euro
Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding, 6.75 Euro

We finished off our meal by sharing a dessert – the Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side. This is toffee the way it should be made – strong, caramely, and just that little bit smoky and burnt. The light and crumbly pudding acted as the perfect vehicle for the toffee sauce, as it just soaked up all the syrup effortlessly. The ice-cream was more icy than creamy – which worked out well as I think a creamier blend would have been too heavy on the palate with the sweet toffee sauce.

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Avenue is one of those neighborhood cafes serving up delicious fare at a reasonable price. It’s a step above the more casual eateries serving the town’s university students, making it the perfect destination for large family groups celebrating a christening, girlfriends catching up over a coffee or a cocktail, or a date destination for couples. A real gem in a small Irish town.

Avenue Cafe is located on Main Street, Maynooth Ireland.

Review: Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe, Bentleigh

Growing up, I always felt like an ‘other’, like someone who didn’t belong at the local primary school in her wealthy predominantly Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood. The only reason I was there after all, was because my parents ran a takeaway shop in the area, and we lived in a apartment above the shop…a far cry from my schoolmates who went home to sprawling four bedroom houses with three bathrooms, two living areas, large gardens and a pool in the backyard.

It’s only as I’ve gotten older and started seeking out stories from other migrant children that I’ve realised I wasn’t so special after all. Reading the work of authors like Benjamin Law and Alice Pung and watching shows like The Family Law and Fresh Off The Boat has made it clear that my experience and all the associated feelings of inadequacy are very common to the experience of Growing Up Asian in Australia (which coincidentally, is a fantastic book).

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I’m starting to learn to embrace my Chinese heritage. I learnt Mandarin in university, I seek out books about Chinese history, I read articles about modern China. I’ve told K that I intend on giving our children Chinese names, and of course, they’ll also have to attend Chinese school on the weekends no matter how much they protest.

The most immediately rewarding aspect is of course, embracing all that’s to love about Chinese food in all its different varieties! Our whole family recently met up with my aunt and uncle in one of their new local favourites – Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe in Bentleigh.

Bentleigh may not be the first suburb you think of when you think of Chinese BBQ meats. Other suburbs like Glen Waverley, Box Hill or Springvale might pop into mind instead. However, don’t let its location f0ol you, there’s a reason this little BBQ shop is a new favourite for my very picky and discerning extended family.

Crispy Roast Pork and Roast Spiced Sausage ($30 AUD per kg)
Crispy Roast Pork and Roast Spiced Sausage ($30 AUD per kg)

My family are greeted by name as we enter the cafe, and my father promptly orders some serves of different roast meats for the whole table to share. The Crispy Roast Pork has a wonderfully salty and crunchy crackling, though I find the meat itself a bit too fatty. The standout here is the house-made Roast Spiced Sausage which is equal parts savoury, sweet and spicy, and the perfect weekend indulgence.

Roast Duck (Whole), $30 AUD
Roast Duck (Whole), $30 AUD

Forget the pork and the sausage for a moment. If you’re dining alone or as a couple and can only justify ordering one serve of roast meat, the Roast Duck is the way to go. We started off with a half serve as shown in the above photo, before quickly demolishing the plate and ordering another half a duck. My family rhapsodises lyrical about its virtues – the glistening succulent skin, the tender and juicy meat, the sweetness of the paired sauce. My aunt claimed that it was as good if not better than any roast duck she’s had in Hong Kong, so that’s pretty high praise indeed!

Dry Beef Ho Fun, Approx $10 AUD
Dry Beef Ho Fun, Approx $10 AUD

While we would normally a number of main meals and share them, the whole family was coming down with a cold and so we decided to order individual meals so as not to share the germs around. Dad chose the Dry Beef Ho Fun, complete with plenty of wok hei, fresh crunchy bean shoots, and smoky slippery rice noodles. A very simple dish that wasn’t particularly generous with its serving of beef, so it is worth ordering the roast meats on the side.

Beef brisket and wonton noodle soup, $10.80 AUD
Beef brisket and wonton noodle soup, $10.80 AUD

K ordered the Beef Brisket and Wonton Noodle Soup. The braised and slow-cooked brisket was particularly tender and tasty, clear evidence of the restaurant using a better quality of beef than you would normally find in a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. The wonton too were nice and plump, with a hearty pork and prawn mix.

Vegetable and bean curd noodle soup, $9.80 AUD
Vegetable and bean curd noodle soup, $9.80 AUD

Recognising that I’d had more than enough meat with the roast duck, pork and sausage, I chose to have a vegetarian main – Vegetable and Bean Curd Noodle Soup. This proved to also be a good choice as I was nursing the start of what would end up being a cold that lasted a fortnight – the extra nutrients offered by the green veggies, mushrooms and carrots hopefully helped to give my immune system a boost! A simple noodle soup that was very satisfying.

BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice, $9.80 AUD
BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice, $9.80 AUD

My brother decided that he needed more roast meat, so he chose the BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice. The quality of this BBQ pork was just as high as the other roast meats, and I do have to give a special shout-out to the chef whose knife skills created these sliver-thin slices of BBQ pork. As my family debated at length, the thickness of BBQ pork slices does impact its overall quality. It’s rare to find BBQ pork sliced as thinly as this, and it really does make a difference.

Stir fried rice noodle with beef, $10.80 AUD
Stir fried rice noodle with beef, $10.80 AUD

My aunt chose the Stir Fried Rice Noodle with Beef…or more accurately, she had originally chosen the noodles with beef brisket, but it came out with simple beef slices instead. She was a bit disappointed that she didn’t get the tender beef brisket she originally wanted, but the thick and flavourful gravy of this beef noodle dish soon soothed any disappointment she may have had.

As I mentioned earlier, Bentleigh is not a suburb I would normally venture to for good Chinese BBQ. Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is certainly strangely located in the Aldi shopping complex in a blink-and-miss-it location right at the end of the long Centre Road shopping strip. Do yourself a favour though – don’t blink and miss it, and instead, make a specific point of seeking it out the next time you’re in the neighbourhood. You’ll have some of the best Chinese roast duck you’ll ever have in your life!

Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is located within the shopping centre at 285-305 Centre Road, Bentleigh.