Review: Summer vibe on the ‘Bray-malfi’ coast and putting the ‘good’ in baked goods
Two seaside experiences this week: One that needs more work, and another where the luscious cakes justify the prices
- 7 Strand Road, Bray, Co Wicklow
- Cowfish 01-9081111
There’s a moment during dinner at Cowfish when sea and sky are the same colour. And, miraculously, it’s luminous blue rather than porridge grey. Cowfish is on the flat roof of Ocean Bar & Grill, in Bray, Co Wicklow. The former hotel, on Strand Road, has morphed into a Jenga game of food ventures. This is an asset that’s being sweated Swedish-sauna style. There are a Box Burger and a Platform Pizza alongside Ocean on the ground floor.
Cowfish is up steep concrete steps painted black with yellow lines, like a road. It’s built out of rough grey-blue-painted timbers and perspex. There’s artificial grass underfoot. There are blankets on the wicker chairs, but we don’t need them: there are enough heaters to maintain the delusion that we live in a climate where a T-shirt can be worn as outerwear, not merely as a vest.
The summer vibe is reflected in the food. Bray seafront looks like it’s had the gorgeous filter treatment. Welcome to the Braymalfi coast. The trick will be pulling off the sunny Italian tone in the food.
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My favourite side is an onion nest: fried onions dusted in a gritty crumb and tasting like the best crispy bits in the bottom of a chip bag
The mackerel on toast is a new arrival on the menu, as is the beef cheek, which make two of our choices. We’re going to go with a mix of small plates, although these are expensive enough to ensure it’s a few rather than a flurry.
The mackerel comes on house-made spelt toast, which is good but needs to be toastier. It takes some work to make your own bread, and it may seem counterintuitive to then slice and toast it, but if you promise toast it must be crisp. Similarly, the chargrilled tomato is just a bit watery, as is any tomato in this part of the world at this time of the year.
The much better dish is the beef cheek, a slump of brown meat cooked so slowly that the sinew and fat have melted to a glistening slick that binds the whole lot together.
House ravioli with mushrooms and a truffle cream are fine, although the mushroom filling is a little too baby-food mushy to do justice to what the menu describes as roasted wild mushrooms, especially as these ravioli are “made fresh every day”, as the waiter says when we order them. There are good green beans, which come with a hollandaise and toasted almonds.
A “Josper fired baked potato” – a Josper is a charcoal oven – tastes fine but fails my baked-potato bar, which is set firmly at leathery skin and floury flesh, using potatoes that have been put through a rigorous set of tastings to find the most terrific of the tubers.
My favourite side is an onion nest: fried onions dusted in a gritty polenta crumb (I’m guessing) and tasting like the best crispy bits in the bottom of a chip bag.
We finish with a chocolate mousse and a stroll down the seafront like Edwardian ladies. I like Cowfish. They give the impression that they’re still working out the details. I’d like to see them do more chipper staples really well, as it would chime with the seafront personality. And when the sun comes out they’ve got the kind of sea view that’ll lift your spirits.
Dinner at Cowfish, with tap water and a peppermint tea, came to €57.50
Cowfish, 7 Strand Road, Bray, Co Wicklow
Food provenance: None
Wheelchair access: No
Vegetarian options: Good
Ballymascanlon, Dundalk, Co Louth
strandfield.com, (042) 937 1856
The Bray experience is my second time in a week sitting in a wooden-lean-to place with a gorgeous view. The first has been a visit to Strandfield House, just outside Dundalk, in Co Louth, where they’ve added more high-roofed space to an outhouse that started as a cafe, florist and grocer.
The building has grown into a large, long, high-ceilinged lean-to that gives the impression not so much of a posh shed as of an eccentric greenhouse where comfy chairs, tables, sideboards and an impressive wood-fired oven have all been collected under the perspex roof.
If you walk all the way down you get a view to the mountains and sky. The cooks wear their organic hearts on their sleeves in this place, with sacks of organic flours, coconut and sugar arrayed like sandbags in the war against cheap ingredients.
I’m here with a friend who regularly cycles out from Dundalk and brings her visitors here for cake experiences. “It’s Dublin prices,” she says, sounding a note of caution when I rapidly break the €20 mark ordering cakes and coffees for two with some takeaway macaroons. These are not the dainty French biscuit-style macaroons that are all tiny and jewel coloured but hefty sugar-syrup-soaked mounds of chewy toasted coconut, like the kind I used to bake as a kid.
We also bag a slice of their coffee and hazelnut cake, a loaf cake with a light enough layer of icing to let the nutty floury cake itself be the star. Yes, Dublin prices, but unlike most in Dublin these are proper cakes, luscious enough to put Strandfield on the map for a pit stop off the M1 on the next trip north.
Tea and cake at Strandfield Cafe came to €21.50
Strandfield Café, Strandfield House, Ballymascanlon, Dundalk
Food provenance: None
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Good