A must for lunch in Cong

The village of Cong in County Mayo is famous as the location where much of The Quiet Man was filmed. Although you can retrace the steps of the actors throughout the town, Cong is so much more than just a movie set for tourists. The village is small and intimate with friendly pubs. There are the ruins of the old abbey right in the town to explore, and a path along the river where you can stroll through one of the loveliest woods. Adjacent to the village stands the dramatic and magnificent Ashford Castle. Dating from the 12th century, you are able to stroll around the grounds and get a feeling of what Ireland was like hundreds of years ago. For all the elegance and splendour of the castle, you should consider looking further afield for lunch. Sure, it has speciality teas, champagne, and finger sandwiches, and there may be talk of tasty pastries and cupcakes, but after many decades in the shadows of the grandeur of Ashford Castle, Cong is at last is defining itself and carving out an identity of its own.

Until very recently, Cong’s qualifications as a food destination seemed unlikely. Apart from The Lodge at Ashford, breakfast options were largely limited to traditional greasy spoons. Lunch was a similarly sparse affair. In the last few years the streets have blossomed into a veritable hub of excellent places to eat. Cong’s reputation as the day-trip capital of Ireland seems assured, and casual dining has replaced formal afternoon tea as the village’s selling point. Puddleducks, Paddy Cohan's, and Lydon’s Lodge are among a new breed of laid back, friendly, eateries catering to the many visitors from far and near. And now, swelling the numbers, there is The Hungry Monk Café, nestling pretty as a picture in a row of low cottages. Under its new management this cafe, we are told, “don't do fast food, we do fresh, wholesome Irish food as quick as we can (smiley face )”.

Located on Abbey Street, in the centre of the village, overlooking the ruins and the Monk's Fishing House, this simple cafe with its bright colours and artfully mismatched furniture is Cong's best lunch spot. Locally sourced ingredients make up the breakfasts, sandwiches, soups, and salads. The luscious cakes and scones are all homemade and you will not find a better cup of coffee in this village or any other. The restaurant sits right on the border of Galway and Mayo and it sources most of the produce in these two counties, with locally smoked salmon from the nearby village of Cornamona, beef and pork from Kelly’s of Newport, coffee roasted in Westport, bottled water from the nearby hills of Tourmakeady, shellfish from Killary Harbour, and fish such as hake and mackerel from Galway Bay.

Aisling and Jonathan are the new owners of The Hungry Monk. It was always Aisling’s dream to have her own restaurant. She studied culinary arts in nearby Galway before working abroad. She worked in a kosher bakery in Boston, and also went to Japan for a year to work in a kitchen there. Jonathan started front of house, working in restaurants in Spain, Chicago, and Tokyo. He then studied culinary arts in Galway, and worked as a chef prior to taking over The Hungry Monk.

The menus are small and uncomplicated, chalked up on the board as is the trend. The Monk's breakfast of eggs, Kelly’s pork sausages, bacon, tomato sambal, and house brown bread is great value at €7.95. Apart from the breakfast menu, there is no set lunch, dessert, or dinner menu. The menus are set daily around the produce available at the various times of the season. During our last visit, the children dined on rocky road, the baked goods here are not to be ignored. The poppy seeded scones in particular have gained a cult following. My teriyaki pork belly sandwich was deliciously warm on a feathery, flowery, blaa. The pork has been pulled to soft, silky, threads topped with a light mayonnaise carrot slaw, and served with the freshest salad leaves. A salt beef sandwich is similarly good with slivers of gherkin pillowed in the bun to give it tang. “Sourced Locally, Served Lovingly” is the motto here, one which the team more than deliver on. Everything is fresh, homemade, and delicious. John, the owner/server/cashier, and his team are incredibly accommodating. The menu changes daily in line with the seasons, but whatever Aisling cooks up is going to be good. This is good old fashioned Irish hospitality at its finest.

The Hungry Monk does not just talk the talk — the owners are very active members of Slow Food Mayo and, along with Aran McMahon from Rua and Jonathan Keane, head chef at the Lodge at Ashford Castle, have been instrumental in bringing the ethos of good local and fair food to Mayo. They have extended themselves to create something to be truly proud of and for that they should be applauded. If you are passionate about real food, if you like to know what is in it and where it comes from, you will be passionate about The Hungry Monk.

The Hungry Monk Cafe, Abbey Street, Cong, County Mayo. Phone 094 954 842.

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