New research from Bord Bia has revealed that supporting local businesses is a key consideration for members of the public when eating out, which may go part of the way to explaining why there is nearly always something of a queue up the stairs for a coveted seat in this small, but perfectly formed, cafe on Spencer Street in Castlebar. With the same research showing that over two thirds of the population rated the use of Irish and local produce as important when eating out for a meal, if you venture over the border to Mayo, Rua's impeccable pedigree of the origin of all elements on the plates delivers. And then some.
Cafe Rua was started by Anne McMahon, a lovely and remarkable woman who, if her circumstances had but been different, would have undoubtedly given Myrtle Allen a run for her money. With a life long love of food, she realised her dream and opened Cafe Rua on Antrim Street when her two children had flown the nest. I can taste her beautiful chicken liver pate and the 'proper' apple tart as if it was yesterday. It is a testament to her that both those items are still on the menu to this day.
When Anne, not so much retired (she is still active in the bakery ), stepped back from the business, Cafe Rua passed to the next generation, Aran and Coleen McMahon, a gift not just for them but for all of us. Colleen now runs the show at Café Rua and they expanded to Rua on Spencer Street, a split level deli and cafe, in 2008. Two restaurants with pride, character, and a strong philosophy.
Rua has a style all its own. On the ground floor is the indecently pretty deli, with interior design by Colleen, a lady with more style than should be allowed, she certainly knows how to make a space both beautiful and inviting. The deli specialises in all things Irish, featuring in particular Mayo, Galway, and the west. It also does takeaway coffees, breakfasts, soups, and lunch dishes. Out front there is an antique table groaning with fantastic breads, bakes, and tarts. Siofra heads up the delicatessen and any of the staff can advise regarding matters of cheese board, hamper, or gift basket from Rua’s extensive range. It was a very deserving winner of the McKennas Retailer of the Year Award for 2012. There’s so much to Rua that you could eat there all day every day, for breakfast, lunch, and even buy the elements of your dinner to throw together quickly at home. Maybe a Sheridan's duck leg confit on a bed of Rua's own red cabbage, with a bottle of Côtes du Rhone? Yes please! I myself am never without some Rua tomato and apple chutney in my fridge.
Upstairs is a casual cafe with a short, seasonally influenced, menu board and a happy atmosphere. The last few times I was in it also had An Taoiseach occupying one of the tables. I am not sure if he is a permanent feature there, but I suppose he must enjoy a Rua tray bake as much as the next Mayo man.
We were seated in the middle of the room, and quickly decided on our order. The girls had Rua's delicious homemade lemonade, an order of thick Nadurtha (formerly Noodle House ) papardelle with a rich ragu sauce and garlic toasts; and sausages (Kelly's of Newport ) with creamy mash, while myself and my current husband shared a Rua mezze platter. If by mezze you are thinking hummus, olives, and flat bread, you would be wrong. Aran has something of a lighthearted attitude to food, his humour and a little touch of wackiness shines through, making the Rua mezze platter as Irish as Hector Ó hEochagáin. The platter featured a taster of one of the soups of the day, a thick and earthy beetroot broth with nuggets of St Tola goat cheese crumbled on top and scattered with shards of cucumber for extra crunch. Some local cheese, notably a lovely rustic nettle type I had not met before, an ironically retro hard boiled egg dressed with homemade mayo which had a distinctive citrus tang. Slices of the house pate served with a beetroot relish, pickles, and the freshest salad leaves, the pitta bread replaced by thick slices of Rua’s own brown bread.
We followed the sharing platter with an open steak sandwich for him, sweet sautéed onions piled high on a soft toasted 'blaa', with fried potatoes, an apply coleslaw, and a pleasantly hot horseradish mayo for €10.95. I had a beetroot and feta tart, well seasoned, light, and with pastry that was flaky and buttery. It came with potato and dill salad and a hailstorm of pomegranate seeds hiding among the mixed leaves. Indeed the assorted salad leaves and sides are always a particular joy. The crunchy apple slaw with the steak sandwich the perfect foil for the tender beef, and Steven Gould's salad leaves are a million miles removed from the supermarket packet ones.
The desserts seem to look at you with a 'come hither' gaze. Resistance is futile, so we didn't. We usually all pick out a dessert before our mains have even reached the table. Picking with some difficulty from the display of chocolate brownies, bakewell tart, and a magnificent looking blood orange upside down cake, the girls both had the seasonal fruit pie. I recognised it as Mammy McMahon's 'proper apple tart', the fruit sliced and baked in a golden pastry crust crumbling under the slightest pressure, and crowned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and not a crumb was left behind. A pear and chocolate roulade and a choux pastry with hazelnut praline filling completed our meal.
Rua really is a great spot to eat, the food is thoughtful and considered, and great value when you consider the quality of ingredients, skill, and service. Take away or enjoy in. There is always something happening, and it is well worth signing up to Rua’s email list or following it on Facebook to keep up to date.
Cooking the Books is running until February 2, where Rua features a different special and dessert every day from some of the current favourite titles, such as Jerusalem by Yottam Ottolenghi or The Ard Bia Cookbook, as well as 10 per cent off the selected cook books for the entire week at the deli. Pancake Tuesday sees crepes for sale to take home as well as 500ml tubs of Rua’s own pancake batter. There is also the very popular monthly evening meals and bespoke Valentine's Day hampers.
The food is generous with something comforting about it, served up by passionate staff who know and love what they do, by family for family. Through these two generations the McMahons and their team have made food that feels like a gift, and I am sure that this is not the end of their story. I'm keeping my eye on young Paddy McMahon — he is a grafter who likes his grub, two of the main requirements for the business. Since he is only eight we shall have to wait a while to see how this one turns out. No pressure then, Paddy! And if you do go and see Enda there - let him eat cake.
Rua is now taking bookings on 094 9286072 for dinner at Spencer Street for both Thursday February 14 and Friday February 15. This is a three course menu for €29. Visit www.caferua.com