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!

avoca-01

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.

avoca-02

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.

avoca-03

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.

avoca-04

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.

avoca-05

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.

avoca-06

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.

avoca-07

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.

avenue-01

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.

avenue-07

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.

Valentine’s Day 2016 Date Morning at Dublin Zoo

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

K and I usually like to celebrate a special occasion with a nice meal. However, two things stood in the way of our celebrating Valentine’s Day in Dublin with a fancy meal: 1) We’d been eating out every day on our holiday and only a Michelin-starred restaurant was going to feel ‘special’ (what a first-world problem) ; 2) The exchange rate made bookings at nicer restaurants out of our budgeted price range; 3) Valentine’s Day was booked out months in advance anyway, so we had no chance even if we had the money.

datemorning-01

So we broadened our horizons and looked for another ‘special occasion’ Valentine’s Day treat, and found ourselves at Dublin Zoo for their special ‘Date Morning’ event in celebration of V-Day. Tickets for two people cost a total of 65 Euro which included entry to the zoo (normally 17 Euro per person), and a few treats along the way. I have to thank my wonderful husband for finding and booking this treat for us in celebration of V-Day!

datemorning-02

We arrived bright and early at 8am, an hour and a half before the official opening time for the zoo. The Date Morning not only gets you into the zoo earlier than everyone else, but also gives you access to a guided tour of some of the zoo’s animal exhibits. The zookeepers even time the tour so that you can see some of the animals being fed – we saw the lions, sea lions, and elephants being fed, as well as visiting other enclosures with talks from the zookeepers.

datemorning-03

In addition to the small guided tours (about twenty people in each group), you also get breakfast and a morning treat! When you book your tickets, you pre-order two bagels for breakfast at the zoo – we chose a smoked salmon and a ham and cheese (not pictured). In addition to those bagels though, the zoo prepares a little takeaway bag for you, with two bottles of water, and two bottles of pink lemonade. You can also help yourself to a table of sweet treats – these colourful macarons for example.

datemorning-04

Or perhaps a red velvet cupcake is more to your liking? All the catering was provided by the Brambles Cafe and Catering Service, a local Irish family-run food business serving customers in Dublin for the past twenty years.

datemorning-05

We took away a cupcake each, and I also grabbed a chocolate-covered strawberry for good measure – what could be more romantic?

datemorning-06

While the takeaway bags included both bottles of water and (local, Irish-made, all-natural) pink lemonade, we also grabbed some complimentary hot drinks to go – a green tea for me, and a black coffee for K.

datemorning-07

Imagine my surprise when we got some additional Valentine’s Day treats as well – an elegant single red rose, and a pair of cute stuffed animals from Dublin Zoo’s gift shop.

Date Morning was a fantastically well-run event at Dublin Zoo in honour of Valentine’s Day 2016. Not only do you get to get up close and personal with some of their animals around feeding time (see photos below), you also get to engage with the zookeepers and ask them questions one-on-one, things you wouldn’t normally get to do on a standard visit to the zoo. It’s fantastic value as well, and I need to break it down to demonstrate:

  • Two standard Adult tickets to the zoo: 34 Euro
  • Two bagels and two cupcakes at a cafe: 15 Euro (approx)
  • Two bottles of water and two bottles of lemonade at a cafe: 7 Euro (approx)
  • Takeaway tea and coffee: 4 Euro (approx)
  • Two small stuffed toys: 20 Euro (approx)
  • TOTAL: 80 Euro approximate value

Yet, you only pay 65 Euro for a Date Morning for two people. Unlike other establishments, it doesn’t seem as though Dublin Zoo mark up their special occasion events that much, so the ticket price is well worth it…especially considering as I haven’t included the priceless value of a zookeeper-guided tour!

We stayed at the zoo for a few more hours after Date Morning officially ended, and walked around the rest of the zoo ourselves, visiting other exhibits. It was a fantastic way to kick off the 2016 Valentine’s Day weekend, and a fantastic treat for me as an animal-lover. My husband definitely knows me well…I guess this is true love? :)