Provenance is clearly important in this Carlow town cafe
It's not the norm to find good food in a museum or gallery, but Lennon’s Café@Visual is different
The interior of Lennon’s Café@Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Old Dublin Rd, Carlow town
“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable,” reads the George Bernard Shaw quote on the door of Lennon’s Café at Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow town. One could easily apply this Shaw sentiment to food.
Visual is on the grounds of Carlow College and it’s home to a 335-seat theatre and the largest white-cube gallery space in the country. It’s 12 metres high and feels more Clockwork Orange than Carlow in its aesthetic. On the side of the building, painted in large letters on one of the building’s few windows, is the phrase “activate that which creates connection and an overwhelming sense of being alive”.
On a busy Sunday, with the Carlow Arts Festival in full swing outside on the green space in front of Carlow College, families pile into Lennon’s Cafe on the ground floor of Visual for Sunday lunch, and the options look good. There’s a roast rack of pork with all the trimmings and a baked hake with Gruyère for the pescatarians.
Meanwhile, for brunch, a plate or Eggs Royale (€12.50) features free-range eggs from Carlow and smoked salmon from Meyler’s in Wexford. The coffee is well made using beans from Green Bean Coffee Roasters based in Louth and Down. A piquant hollandaise makes this dish, and the crispy skinny fries on the side are a welcome guilty pleasure.
Provenance is clearly important here. A list of nearly 20 local suppliers is written on the wall, right next to the kitchen pass where head chef Gail Johnson and chef Carmel Moore hold the fort. There’s Brennan’s Butchers and Crotty’s Bakery in Carlow, Coollatin Cheddar from Wicklow and Elizabeth Bradley Cheese from Fenagh. “We use local where possible,” says the owner and manager Ross Byrne. “People can relate to it. If the beef comes from Tommy Brennan’s Butchers down the road, our customers might even know Tommy himself. It’s a link in the chain.”
The Byrnes took over Lennon’s Pub in Tullow Street in Carlow in 1999. Ross’ mother, Sinead, had worked in Bórd Bia for many years before she started doing a popular lunch trade from the pub. Word spread and soon the demand meant renovations to the pub and its kitchen were in order, so they took a break in 2007 to renovate. In the meantime, the opportunity to move into the Arts Centre came up and the family moved Lennon’s Cafe to the first floor of Visual, opening in 2009. They do lunch seven days and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
After brunch, I explore Visual. Upstairs in the Lobby Gallery, I take in the 1970 film of The Triadic Ballet, created by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922 to be a “party of form and colour”. It’s being screened until September 10th. Next door a room full of Bauhaus inspired costumes and a workshop space for puppet-making welcomes audiences to create their own party of form and colour. Downstairs in the vast belly of the main gallery, a huge projection of Daria Martin’s A Hunger Artist dominates a wall. Next door, in a light-filled downstairs space, installations include a kinetic wall installation by Marin Boyle called Somewhere Else made from pieces of gold-reflective survival blankets, a comment on society’s tendency to think of refugees and migrants as someone else’s problem.
It’s not unheard of but it’s not the norm to find good food in a museum or gallery setting. Lennon’s is a very good café, holding its own in a very beautiful building. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I like what I see here at Visual.