Thanks to Joe McNamee for this review of Crawford Gallery Café

While recently breaking bread with an infinitely younger friend-in-food, said friend expressed surprise that I might favour the Crawford Gallery Café, dismissing it as a tired, old haunt for ‘ladies who lunch’. It takes the brass neck of youth to so deliver such a bald statement, a blitheness further compounded when he then confessed to never having eaten there. Indeed, though highly creative and exceptionally talented in his own artistic sphere, he admitted it had been ‘some time’ since he’d even visited the gallery.

The café has many fans — you don’t last 31 years without supportive regulars — but when local talk turns to nosh, it is rarely the first place mentioned, even by otherwise well-informed native gourmands, a lacuna perhaps echoed in Leeside’s relationship with the gallery itself, where too many who should know better, seem to have let it slip gradually down the list of priorities, culinary or cultural.

Despite its iconic façade, this landmark is so deeply etched in the city’s consciousness that it can become overly familiar, often ‘unseen’. And to enter the Café, you first enter the gallery — there is no ‘street presence’ to lure peckish passers-by.

But the gallery is re-energising its relationship with the community. On sunny days, you can now dine in the garden and as we wait outside for our lunch guest, V, workers are tearing out scruffy, overgrown shrubs behind a railed-in strip running along one wall, revealing yet more of the elegant old edifice.

The café is one of the finest dining rooms in Ireland, a serene city sanctuary. With parquet flooring, high ceilings, soaring windows and a few tasty pieces from the gallery’s collection, it exudes the effortless grace of a Viennese counterpart. ‘Lunching Ladies’ are but a fraction of today’s very mixed crowd.

No 2 Son, a great man for the soup, is rewarded with Onion & Thyme Leaf, one of the finest bowls he has ever put away, sharp onion and astringent herb lulled into beguiling, bewitching sweetness. His Ballymaloe Cheese Croquettes, surprisingly light, crisp little bouchées, are addictive enough to encourage repeated rustling by V and I.

Roast Marrow Bone with parsley caper salad and sourdough is an iconic dish created by English chef Fergus Henderson but this iteration is no pale imitation. Three segments of roasted bone stand on the plate like a Pagan stone circle, blistered and flecked with the deep rusty-brown of carmelised meat juices, sweet beefy marrow glistening within. Consuming offal is a tad too visceral for V but riding roughshod over reservations, I foist a portion on her. If the subsequent enthusiasm is in any way feigned to spare my feelings, then I’ll swim/crawl to Hollywood to pick up her Oscar. My own enthusiasm is near euphoric and I am finding it hard to resist ordering a glass from a fine little list of natural/organic wines, sourced from Le Caveau Wine Suppliers.

Sadly, my resistance holds firm, even after tasting Warm Caramelised Onion & Buffalo Mozzarella Tart, delicious crumbling crisp pastry encasing an exquisite, just-set, eggy/cheesy custard, sweetened with onion, and only crying out for a glass of Chateau Turcaud Entre-Deux-Mers. Crisp cucumber pickle deputises, cutting right up the middle with an acidic swish. A plain green side salad would be the perfect partner if it weren’t for an excess of decaying leaves, a rare careless moment.

V is relishing her Autumn Salad: nutty heirloom carrots, sweet, earthy beet and flavoursome purple tomatoes. Green leaves are, this time, pristine, drizzled with hazelnut dressing, peppered with crumbs of fresh salty feta. We enjoy splendid coffees but can manage no more than a nibble of deliciously unctuous Plum & Almond Tart.

Since opening in 1986, the café has remained true to original founder Myrtle Allen’s ethos of doing little or nothing to undermine finest, local seasonal produce but, currently enjoying a serious renaissance under head chef Sinead Doran, this is an especially splendid meal and it pains us to have to scurry off early to other appointments. Next time, I plan to linger, sup and sip like a real pro, utterly eclipsing the efforts of any lunching ladies of leisure — and I’ll be bringing a certain young friend with me, to expand his education.

The Tab €50 (excluding tip)

The Verdict

  • Food: 8.5/10
  • Service: 8.5/10
  • Value: 9.5/10
  • Atmosphere: 9.5/10