Alma, Dublin: This new cafe turns the everyday into something special
Review: An almost all-female family affair injects a rare amount of soul into the food
- 12 South Circular Road, Portobello, Dublin 8
- South American
I have a shallow puddle of Spanish language, which evaporates in the presence of any actual Spanish speakers. But Duolingo dabbling has taught me nouns ending in “a” tend to be female. As with all rules, there are exceptions. And alma is one of them. It means soul and it is a masculine noun. (Yes, the patriarchy claimed that biggie for itself.)
But on the South Circular Road, Dublin, Alma is almost all female. There are men here, in the kitchen, and one front of house, but this is a daughter-dominated family business.
This place has been a cafe for ages. It was Nellie’s for years, a cosy mix of grocery and coffee shop where you shared a long table or sat in the window where the stools were covered with the varnished pages from comic books. You could watch the buses go by and it became a regular caffeine pit stop in the buggy-pushing years. After Nellie’s moved over the river to Drumcondra, the shop became another food business called Hamilton, and now it’s Alma.
They’re serving the food they love to eat, which makes for a more interesting mix of hipster brunch ingredients, such as kale on one side and juicy steaks on the other
The name is picked out in black on the all-white exterior. Inside, the walls are painted a lovely deep powder blue and the old cornicing is chalky white. The ceiling rose is empty of its light fitting because lights run down the sides of the room above our heads. Where once were food shelves now are bolt-on tables with white stools just the right height, squeezing as many seats into the room as possible without making us feel like anchovies in a jar.
Alejandro Parisi; his wife, Lucrecia Rosa; and their daughters, Anabella, Luciana, Macarena and Agustina, moved to Ireland from Argentina. The name Alma comes from the initials of each of the daughters’ first names.
Have they ever run a cafe before? “We have never done anything like this before,” one of them says, smiling at her mother and the high-wire feeling of it all.
That’s a large part of the charm of Alma. They haven’t drawn their inspiration from the typical cafe menu, social-media trends or those horrible catering supply wheezes of fake “from scratch” shortcuts creeping steadily into the cafe scene. They’re serving the food they love to eat, which makes for a more interesting mix of hipster brunch ingredients, such as kale on one side and juicy steaks on the other. Weekend brunches involve queuing, but lunches are quieter and we’ve arrived early, just to be sure.
There’s a thoughtful friendliness to everything here. Water arrives immediately in a glass bottle with a sprig of rosemary and chunks of orange in it. They do a house rosemary lemonade, too, which makes for a much better option than long-hauled sparkling water in a disposable plastic bottle.
There’s a new dish on the menu since my last lunch here, a loaded batata or whole grilled sweet potato. It comes with what is described as Argentine sausage ragu, a sort of pulled pork only better, with limed sour cream and spicy nuts, with fresh leaves. The pork comes from Tommy Kelly, a man with the memorable name of the The Irish Gaucho. Kelly is a red-haired, freckled Argentinian whose ancestors left Ireland in the mid-1800s to farm outside Buenos Aires. He moved to Ireland when he was 22, but missed the food of his childhood, traditional Argentinian sausages or chorizos. So he started making his own version in his Dublin kitchen.
Here the sausage ragu is a juicy, savoury counterpoint to the sweetness of the roast potato, and then there’s the crunch of peanuts and zing of lime and lactic acid to add another slash of flavour flair to the plate. It’s a perfect lunch dish.
The teenager gets a ganache-covered brownie so gorgeously fudgy it’s uncertain where brownie ends and ganache begins
My son gets the steak with house chimichurri. The meat is finished with a sloppy delicious spice rub heavy on the roasted cumin, a fried north Wicklow egg, fried kale and cubed roasted potatoes. Everything on the plate has been cooked as it should be: steak juicy, potatoes crisp and the kale freshly sauteed and then finished with a squeeze of lemon.
Then it’s up to the counter to order coffee and choose from the coffee shop selection of cakes for dessert. There’s a lemon and poppy-seed pistachio cake topped off with rose petals for a nice touch to an excellent piece of baking. The teenager gets a ganache-covered brownie so gorgeously fudgy it’s uncertain where brownie ends and ganache begins.
Alma’s brunch trade is already out the door but it’s still something of a secret lunch spot, just a short walk away from the busy business district of Dublin 2, where the chains suck up most of the lunch money.
Cooking the food you love, with excellent ingredients, is where all good chefs start. When you do it with heart and soul, like they do here in Alma, it turns an everyday cafe into something very special.
Lunch for two with cakes and coffee came to €45.66
- Verdict There aren’t many cafes with as much food soul as this.
- Facilities Small.
- Music Nice.
- Food provenance Good, North Wicklow Eggs, Two Fifty Square Coffee, Gubbeen meats and The Irish Gaucho among the names.
- Vegetarian options Good.
- Wheelchair access No. A small ramp would allow access up the stone steps to the room.