Joris Minne: Avoca cafe restaurant
The quest for perfection is a human affliction that has been as much a part of civilisation as religion, procreation and war.
Engineers say necessity is the mother of invention. Rubbish. The greatest leaps made by mankind through the ages — starting with fire, spears and cave paintings right through to music, the internal combustion engine and breast augmentation — have not been prompted by necessity.
These progressions are about making the world warmer, safer, more beautiful and as perfect as possible. The trouble is that one person’s quest to create heaven on earth can be another’s abomination. Christians versus Muslims, Friends of the Earth versus genetically modified food and bankers’ bonuses versus the Vincentian Order’s vow of poverty are clear examples of conflicting interpretations of a would-be perfect life.
Nonetheless, it’s the daily pursuit of our idea of perfection that keeps getting us up every morning. How many homes and interiors magazines have you read that make you green with envy, or fashion journals, or those dedicated to motoring, cooking and all the other wondrous elements in our existence that leave you gasping for a radical lifestyle change?
The retail industry offers a version of perfection to suit particular audiences, but none is more adept at satisfying its wealthy, clutter-loving fans than Avoca.
Avoca is Ireland’s answer to the premier league of English country living styles that includes Laura Ashley, Boden, Cath Kidston, Hunter (the wellies people) and Barbour. It offers the opposite of minimalism.
In an Avoca shop you can find the perfect answer to every difficult question: winter wardrobe? Plum-toned, deconstructed velvet blazers and coats.
Kitchen decor? Distressed chairs and splintery tables. Bathroom? Victorian-effect soap dispensers, towel rails and back scratchers.
Children’s presents? Hand-carved wooden toys, of course (God love the poor critters).
I was in the Powerscourt Avoca shop in Co Wicklow a couple of years back and became hypnotised by the relentlessly cheery, casually stylish and rustically irresistible charm of it all — until the adviser snapped her fingers and told me to wise up. Hadn’t I seen the price of the stuff? And what would we be wanting with a pink tin coffee pot with matching mugs in Belfast?
Avoca opened up its Belfast store three years ago in the most unprepossessing building (its exterior has all the charm of a social security office) but, thanks to deft design and a million country-style baubles, the owners managed to recreate a rural idyll inside.
Walk into Avoca now and it’s like passing through Stargate, into a fourth dimension that has fallen under the command of gorgeous aliens who wear their pastel polo shirts with the collar up, have perfectly tousled hair and whose country-style come-on is hard to refuse.
If you manage to get past them and the acres of spectacularly well presented clutter and up the stairs you will find a self-service cafe on the right and a restaurant on the left.
The cafe, with its £7.50 deal for a sandwich, soup and ‘fruit pot’, offers value for money and a wide spread of tables and chairs, all kissed with the magical Avoca rusticity.
I recently had a decent blue cheese and broccoli soup that was fresh and generous. The chicken wrap was so big and awkward to tackle I couldn’t finish it because by the second bite I had become embarrassingly self-conscious what with half of it plopping down onto the plate.
The fruit pot was indeed a pot filled with fresh bits of chopped fruit, including melon, orange, strawberries, grapes and something else I didn’t recognise.
A few days later, lunch in the posher (multi-lingual servers and a good bit more expensive) restaurant turned out to be a mixed bag.
My Avoca-loving managing director Jane, a seasoned and experienced foodie, needed a brief break from the weighty affairs of state, so two glasses of Prosecco (with raspberries floating on top) were ordered while the menu was studied.
She studied the menu and I looked around to see what others were having. They were doing the same thing (looking around to see who was looking at them and who was worth looking at).
Lots of men with wavy grey locks, striped shirts and beautiful wives of a certain age sat uncomfortably at the marble-topped tables.
You can bring the Irish country old-money look to Belfast but do the locals take to it?
Clearly they do, but not without some concerted effort.
I saw guys in there who would have been far more comfortable in the Crown Bar but who knew they had to forget their old ways and join the style race (and their wives) before it’s too late.
A potted crab starter was too airy. It was presented in one of those French rubber-sealed hinge-topped glass jars but hadn’t originated there. Potted crab should be dense and packed in with whatever the chef decides should be added. But it should be comparable to a light pate, not just a mound of light, shredded crab meat. Had I put it in my hand I could have compressed it to the size of a teaspoon full.
The following ricotta and spinach ravioli with a cheese sauce was very poor. Gloopy sauce, dry ravioli filling and very little flavour is inexcusable at this price, £12.25.
Jane’s chargrilled chicken with cous cous and a selection of little baked tomatoes, on the other hand, was very good. The chicken was cooked well and the blend of fresh chicken fillet and chargilled spiciness was delightful.
A raspberry clafoutis was too suety to my taste but then, if you like proper, traditional spotted dick, you would love this. The remoulade of meringue with fresh cream and strawberries was big and decadent and mouth-fillingly satisfying. This is the right thing to do with meringue — break it up into bits so that the awful polystyrene effect of even the best meringue is replaced with a great mix of bite-size components and textures.
Avoca the shop is a laugh because even the most cynical anti-bourgeois activist will not fail to be mesmerised by the carefully studied insouciance of it all.
It might not be my version of perfection but to many it is. Either way, it still provides the other kind of Belfast person with enough ammo to walk away smugly thanking God you’re a dedicated minimalist.
Prosecco x 2 glasses £9.50
Potted crab £8.85
Coffee x 2 £4