Avoca, the Pratt family’s series of shops and restaurants in Ireland, has recently been sold to the multi-national food organisation, Aramark.
We first wrote about the Kilmacanogue shop in a piece published in the Weekend edition of The Irish Times, on March 2nd, 1996. In the Avoca Café Cookbook, published in 2000, Simon Pratt wrote: “In 1996 a glowing review of of the Kilmacanogue café appeared in The Irish Times by John McKenna. His praise and understanding of what we were trying to do was a decided watershed in our development”.
Mr Pratt was too kind. The article, as you can see below, really recounts what a hapless parent I was.
The sense of ambition and hunger in Avoca in 1996 was palpable: this is just a little taste of one of the glories of Irish food at a very exciting time.
March 2 1996 The Irish Times
THERE is so much to admire about the operation that is Avoca Handweavers, in Kilmacanogue, just outside Bray in Co Wicklow, that one hardly knows where to begin. But, let's cast aside critical detachment, and tell the story of two lunches from a few weeks back.
It is Saturday lunchtime. Armed with the babies, I queue up and order a couple of bowls of soup to begin - mushroom for me, onion for the toddler. The place is jumping, but a friendly lady working the floor helps to carry the food over for us. Testing the temperature of the onion soup, I am knocked out by its implicit sweetness and subtlety, and confident the child will eat a gallon of it. The kindly lady brings us some bread, and a quick bite shows it is sweet and cakey.
Then, just like in a book by Janet and Allan Ahiberg, things start to go wrong.
"I want Mummy," cries the toddler, who refuses even a morsel of soup. Not to be outdone, the baby begins to cry: who needs a solo performance when you can get a duet? I can feel the stares of the droves of other eaters, can almost hear their dialogue: "Modern fathers aren't a bad thing, I suppose. It's just such a pity all men are jerks”.
There was nothing for this jerk to do but to abort the mission. Helped once again by the kindly lady, I pick up the babies, abandon the delicious soups and bread, and head for the door. But, while I am pfaffing around doing this, the kindly lady arranges for me to get my money back, an act of thoughtful generosity.
Driving away, turning up Neil Young's “Mirrorball” to soften the screams, all I can think of is the taste of that onion soup.
It is Sunday lunchtime. Armed with the children's mother, we are back in Kilmacanogue. The child voraciously devours a bowl of roasted tomato and red pepper soup, a concoction which shows, again, the fondness of this kitchen for sweet flavours. It is fab. The baby sleeps while we eat a fantastic piperade tart, the slice topped with a ring of tomato, and the stew of peppers and onions bound up with goats cheese. With this we have roasted fennel and red pepper salad, and grated carrot and sesame seed salad with a sesame dressing.
The other main course is sesame glazed chicken, again perfectly executed, and for this we had chosen potato salad with a yoghurt and mint dressing, and a lovely crunchy mixture of cauliflower, broccoli and peanut salad, with a mustard dressing. Then we had a wellington slice, and some tea.
It was a perfect lunch. Not a detail that could have been better, not a detail that wasn't as good as it could be, and the synergy between the tastes - the goats cheese in the tart with the vegetables, the heat of mustard with the broccoli and cauliflower, the clever splash of pesto in the soup - showed astute culinary thinking. Like the previous day, the place was jumping, but the atmosphere was relaxed, the buzz of people enjoying themselves, the buzz of people who know they are on to a good thing. And that good thing is the cooking in Avoca Handweavers.
Leylie Hayes has been in charge of the food in Avoca since they started doing something more than coffee and cakes, six years ago. "I never had designs on being a cook," says Ms Hayes. "I was 21 before I started, when I did a Ballymaloe course, and then I worked in the kitchen at Ballymaloe for almost a year." After that she moved to the Kildare Street club, spent six months with Anthony Worral-Thompson in London, and what is exciting about her cooking is the fluid assimilation of the discipline of Ballymaloe and the panache of Worral-Thompson.
Her food is fun, and perfectly constructed. You look at the assembly of dishes at lunchtime in Kilmacanogue, and want to try everything. The simple fact of the matter is that if you did, you would probably find that everything was perfect.
The real question with Avoca is not just how it manages this, but how it manages to serve 300 people every day (it can be as many as 1,200 on an August bank holiday), and to do it 363 days a year, and to keep the food interesting and compelling.
"We have a very open policy," says Leylie Hayes, "and we have a great team of chefs. If one of them comes in at seven in the morning and wants to try something new, we will try it. If people like it and it sells, then we keep it. Plus we also often go out on the floor, just ask people if everything is OK, if they are happy. We have a lot of regulars, so we have to dream up new things for them, and at the same time we have lots of people who always want to eat the same things, so we have to make sure it is always as good every day."
The key to this discipline lies with constant inquiry. Ms Hayes goes to London every year just to eat in new restaurants, staff are allowed sabbaticals to travel and learn about new cuisines. The dread of dullness and repetition is thus kept at bay.
"It's a wonderful company to work for," says Leylie. Nothing shows that better than the food and the obvious contentment of the staff.
And with this constant inquiry comes constant innovation. "We will have a new food hall open in a week or so," says Simon Pratt, one of the family which owns Avoca and the man who works closely with Leylie Hayes to oversee the food. "And we are adding 30 new seats to the restaurant, and hopefully by the summer we will have a covered, cafe area built out front in the garden."
"But we don't think we ever have it right," says Ms Hayes. "We are pumping money back into the business all the time, trying to make it better."
Of all the things to admire about Avoca - the food, the friendliness, the patient way with gormless fathers - perhaps this hunger to improve is the finest attribute.
The following recipe for "Avoca Piperade Tart” is a very clever revision of the classic Basque dish of piperade, traditionally a stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and eggs, created by chef Joanna Hill. Here, the filling is enclosed in a pastry case, the tomato is taken out of the stew and used as decoration, and the goats cheese serves to bind the ingredients perfectly.
8oz flour, 4oz butter (cold), salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil, iced water, 1 egg
1 Spanish onion, 3 red peppers, 3 yellow peppers, Olive oil, 8oz goat's cheese, 4 beef/plum tomatoes, Large bunch of basil.
Rub the butter into the flour. Beat together the egg and olive oil. Add to the flour with enough water to bring the pastry together. Leave to rest in the fridge for one hour. Roll out and line a 12-inch tart tin (with a removable base). Bake blind.
Cut the onion into half rings and cut the peppers into strips. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan. Cook the onions and the peppers on a high heat for about 10 minutes, then turn the heat down and cook for about an hour until the mixture resembles marmalade.
Slice the goat's cheese and crumble over the pastry base. Spread the pepper mixture (piperade) on top. Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Bake at 200C/400'F for approximately 20 minutes. Tear up the basil and mix with two tablespoons of olive oil. Spread over the top of the tart. Serve warm. Serves four to six.