Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Cake Café

Dublin City is full of little secrets. Some are incredibly obscure, others well known enough to be more accurately described as common knowledge but out of plain sight. One of my favourite secrets to advertise (I am well aware of what irony means) amongst friends is a little bakery of cakes and café called, aptly, the Cake Café. It falls under the latter ‘well known but physically obscured’ type of secret, meaning that it’s frequently mentioned and published in Dublin food guides but to find it you need these rigorous directions: venture down Camden Street, turn right onto Pleasant’s Row, then take a left down a small alleyway that will bring you past a little recording studio. Anybody you bring with you will, by now, be wondering if you’re planning to jump them for whatever they happen to be carrying but a little further on they’ll spot the hanging sign that indicates food is indeed on the agenda and not aggravated burglary. You enter through the large wooden gateway into what looks like an apartment block courtyard and tada! You’ve arrived at the Cake Café.

The first thing that strikes you is the courtyard itself; bamboo shoots touch the sky and their leaves cloud above a series of little wooden alcoves housing both diners and bicycles, some of which are used to deliver the café’s cakes themselves in dainty little baskets. The insides of these alcoves are plastered with very interesting artwork made of materials ranging from mosaic to old CDs and bicycle chains. With a camera in hand, it’s difficult to not just forget the food and start snapping the walls instead!

Navigating around the outside tables will lead you directly to the entrance proper. If – like my good friend Orla and I – you arrive during the busier lunch hours then be prepared for a squeeze because, as I said beforehand, the Cake Café is indeed obscured from view but widely published. It features in the Bridgestone Guide, the Georgina Campbell Guide and is rated as one of Dublin’s best 100 eateries by the Dubliner. People do know about it, and it does get busy. Especially around lunchtime, even more so on a Saturday. Neither of us had any qualms about sitting into the two-seat bar area tucked into a corner of the café between the kitchen itself and a window, so thankfully we didn’t have to wait. The normal seating area was jam packed for lunch, as was the entrance throughout our visit with hopeful diners and ordered cake collections. The buzz was electric, and friendly given every second entrant was greeted with an ironic ‘not you again!’. You feel like this could easily be the location of a Cheers-esque sitcom, where everyone knows your name by the fourth visit.

The point of course in our trip to the Cake Café is in the name; it had been a long term promise of mine to take Orla for some of their baked goods and after all the waiting she was very enthused. This is, unfortunately, where they take a stumble. The list of cakes is extensive and mouth watering, half of what’s on offer jumps out at you immediately when you open the menu. Rich chocolate Belgian cake, apple and cinnamon, the orange sponge cake halfway down carries an exclamation mark as if to underline the excitement you ought to be feeling at making your way through the page! (Excited?) You make your choice, order and then you hear it: ‘we’re out of that I’m afraid’. One or two items you might expect, but as the waiter proceeds to list a good seven out of ten cakes on the page that you can’t have, disappointment begins to set in. This was not a first time experience either, the same had happened several months ago on a Tuesday no later than half past two in the afternoon when the choice was between cupcake of the day, Victoria sponge or a brownie. Today the cupcakes were also MIA , but filling in was carrot cake that had been lamentably absent in my last visit.

The problem would appear to be that the Cake Café has fallen victim, somewhat, to its own success. A quick inspection of their online menu reveals exactly the kind of operation they run: full bakery order service with particular custom requests accepted and delivery thereof, on top of the café that also runs a breakfast menu and serves a decent collection of savoury dishes. It’s easy to understand the difficulties involved in managing such a workload and how, given their popularity, this won’t have gotten any easier since they first opened. Unfortunately for me, their website also boasts a series of quotes from Dublin’s foodie elites – such as Tom Dooley of the Irish Independent – lauding several of the delicious cakes that I as of yet have not had the chance to try and definitely wanted to. It certainly works against their favour to inform any new arrival at only one o’clock in the afternoon that most of the set cake menu is obsolete, so what I would recommend is perhaps altering that aspect slightly. How about a chalk board that lists only the available cakes? In having such a display, it turns the negative into a positive. Instead of apologetically reeling off what is unavailable, proudly direct the diner’s attention to the current selection! It won’t improve the number of cakes on offer, but it would definitely leave a late luncher ignorant to the disappointment they might otherwise experience.

Regardless of the selection issues, Orla settled for a Victorian sponge which was reliable as ever. The jam and cream were layered thickly in the middle, sandwiched by two wonderfully light and fluffy sponge slices. It was melt in your mouth goodness; perfect for relaxing with on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I, meanwhile, was hungry so immediately aimed for the more savoury side of the menu. On offer you’ll find homemade baked beans which are no less interesting and delicious than they sound, a tapas cheese and meat platter with an Irish twist, sandwiches, soups and even one or two tarts. A board above the kitchen area broadcast’s the days specials which were enthusiastically listed to us by one of the waiters as we seated ourselves. In the end, I went for the hot pot of the day which combined potato, spinach and chorizo with a few other choice ingredients. In a word? Fantastic, and moreish! Well, two words then but I can be forgiven. The chorizo itself was perfectly cooked and tender, lacking none of the flavour you’d expect. Don't be mistaken, the Cake Café is not just a bakery. You’re also given two slices of their homemade soda bread which is so crunchy it’s to die for. I’d left the whole dish untouched for a few minutes for the sake of conversation, but after my first bite it was gone in even less time! That’s a compliment in itself. Two homemade lemonades, a walnut brownie later and it was time for us to scoot.

The Cake Café is everything you'd want a place you drop into for lunch, a cup of tea or chat with a friend over a good slice of chocolate sponge to be. It has charm, atmosphere, great food on offer and is run by people who appear to be on a mission. It would take an entire paragraph to also pay tribute their ethos of sustainability, which is second to none. All of this is why I found myself more disappointed than I normally would have been over the ‘non availability of actual cake’ problem. It’s nothing that will drive me away in the long term, but I fear that first timers may not be so forgiving and in the currently tougher financial environment, that’s a worrying prospect. So, to all of you who are reading, I have this to say: you must visit the Cake Café if you haven't already. When you do, go early and benefit from everything they have to offer instead of only half. It is all in the name after all.

The Cake Café
The Daintree Building,
Pleasants Place,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-4789394


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