Review: Hidden gem serving hearty food at canteen prices

Silk Road Cafe at the Chester Beatty Library is hidden away enough to feel like a real find

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The Silk Road Cafe

  • Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin Castle
  • 01-4070770

These bare bones days of January are no place for thin soup or a slurry smoothie. We can’t un-eat the past few weeks, but the last thing I need is a juice detox to bring it all limping to a headachy and lethargic slump. In truth I’ve no idea if lethargy or headaches are a thing with juice detoxes. The closest I’ve come to a juice detox is swigging my morning orange, realising there are no oats and having to wait a good 20 minutes till someone pedals to Mace and the universe is set to rights with a creamy pot of porridge blipping on the stove.

Veganuary may be in full swing for some and I raise a watery glass of nut milk to your plant-based denial. But smaller, better hits of taste – and warmth – are in my sights in the milky grey light of this newly minted year. And after last week’s blow-out my inner value hunter is back. 

It all brings us to the Silk Road Cafe in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library. “You have to go,” a friend insisted recently. “The food is great and when it’s gone, it’s gone.” So they cook up big batches of tray bakes, vats of salads and dips, and present them canteen-style in glass cabinets. There’s meat here but nothing stand-alone and showy. It’s carvery without the roast, with added chickpeas. 

The Silk Road Cafe is a curious mix of plain good food and fancy pants surroundings. There’s the building itself, a sandwich of painted Georgian brick and glass atrium. There aren’t many city centre cafes with their own water feature. Here it’s a long mosaic of a peacock feather submerged in a half foot of bubbling water running alongside the tables. There are some rope barrier holders standing at the ready should a tumble of schoolchildren arrive into the place. But it’s all grown-ups today so the crowd control part has been decommissioned. 

Spud-laden moussaka

We’re sitting in this three-storey atrium surrounded by lovely Georgian windows climbing up to slate grey clouds seen through the glass roof. Tables are veneer and chairs are sludge-coloured vinyl. I’m digging into a spud-laden moussaka, a lot like a good vegetable stew with a lid of baked-on béchamel. I’ve gone for a half portion with a lentil salad. Here the lentils are the size of Smarties and there’s a silken, lemony hummus with sumac sprinkled over the top so vibrantly claret-coloured it looks like an accident in a dye factory. The lentil salad could do with being warm but the hummus is the best I’ve had in Dublin. 

My mum has the spinach slice, skin-coloured filo pastry glistening with butter and filled with a nutty tangle of spinach. Her bean sprout salad is a little underwhelming and a serving of olives and feta could do with being made with better olives but otherwise it’s all good. 

We take two runs at dessert. The first attempt is so underwhelming: a berry crumble that’s little more than hot jam with throat-scorchingly sweet topping and a lemon cake that hasn’t been drizzled with enough lemon syrup so is sawdust in cake form. The lesson here is to ignore the western dessert staples and go Middle Eastern. On our second run at it, two coconut-sprinkled rolls of chewy Turkish delight (70 cent apiece) and some fudgy medjool dates make dessert B the much better option, with good coffee. 

A short trot from Dublin’s shopping heart, the Silk Road Cafe has been discovered by plenty of food fans but is still hidden away enough to feel like a find. Culture Night is the only night you get to eat there after dark, but if you linger over lunch long enough, these pearl-grey January days that fade to dusk so soon it might feel like night is pressing in from outside. It’s the luxury of hearty food at canteen prices and that’s exactly what we need to help us out of the dark and into spring. 

Verdict: 7/10 Heavenly hummus and hearty portions of good food. 

Lunch for two with coffee and several desserts came to €24.90.

The Silk Road Cafe, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, 01-4070770

Facilities: Fine

Wheelchair access: Yes

Music: None

Food provenance: None

Vegetarian options: Hearty

Second helping

The Daintree paper shop on Dublin’s Camden Street may have relocated to Swords and an online store but a bookshop has taken its place and its backyard cafe neighbour is still going strong. I had a reminder that the Cake Cafe is not just about cake recently when I dropped in for lunch with my mum. The open toast sandwich was a bacon and Brussels sprout concoction bursting with brilliant flavours. It came on their house-made seeded yeast bread, which tasted like it had been taken out of the oven shortly before. The house soup is similarly good value, with a generous hunk of brown bread. Coffee is good and with the change in HSE rules around animals in cafes, we had the pleasure of Dublin’s friendliest dog tucked in underneath the table next to us. Lunch for two came to €17.35.

The Cake Cafe, The Daintree Building, Pleasants Place, Dublin 8, 01-4789394

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