Operation food market


FOOD BUSINESS: Avoca might be known for its lifestyle range, but the food selection is the area of its business that is on the rise. The latest opening is a food-only outlet with an in-store butcher and rotisserie, as well as a cafe and food shop. MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBYtakes a tour

HOW MANY OF those do you expect to have next week?” asked Donald Pratt, in reference to the pretty little vintage silver-plate and blue glass salt cellars and spoons that adorn the tables at Salt. “It’ll be a test of south Dublin human nature,” says his son Simon, as he fastidiously tidies the Maldon salt in the one on the table in front of him.

In truth, customers will be travelling from further afield than south Dublin to this latest concept store from Avoca, which is owned by the Pratt family. Salt Café and Avoca Food Market, in Monkstown, Co Dublin, is the company’s first outlet selling only food and food-related items. It’s a wonderful space, a playground (and money pit) for gourmets, and a busy, bustling place to have a coffee, eat lunch, buy dinner, and nourish the foodie soul.

Joining the family-owned brand in the 455 sq m former Seagreen premises in Monkstown are Clonmel butcher Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers, and Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell’s Poulet Bonne Femme rotisserie, the first concessions within an Avoca shop.

“The idea of a café within a food market has been building with me for some time,” Pratt says. “I think it pulls together the way people want to eat and shop today. For example, we have an artisan butcher, a cheese maturing and charcuterie room, a chicken rotisserie and fantastic seasonal vegetables. When you look at the café menu those same products feature prominently.”

Head chef Mark McGillyguddy worked at Mint, the Four Seasons and Tribes before joining Avoca, and he comes to Salt from the company’s Fern House café at Kilmacanogue. He is serving the Poulet Bonne Femme chicken in a lunchtime Caesar salad (€14.95), and as a whole roast dinner for two in the evening (€21.95, with a doggy bag for the leftovers). What will surely become the restaurant’s most in-demand dish – dry-aged sirloin, from the in-store butcher, with green beans, chips and béarnaise sauce (€21.95) – is available all day.

Pat Whelan will be operating a craft butchery in a high-tech outlet at the back of the premises, with whole carcasses hanging behind glass, and meat being cut to order. A problem with delivery of the triple-glazed, condensation-free thermal glass for the on-view cold room and meat preparation areas has delayed the opening of this part of the shop, and early December is the revised launch date.

“I’d heard about Pat Whelan anecdotally, as being a supplier to the Áras and various State dinners. I went to see him in Clonmel on a filthy wet day and his shop was out the door busy with knowledgeable local housewives. That night I ate the best beef of my life,” Pratt says. Whelan will be spending between two and three days a week in the Dublin shop, where he will sell beef, lamb, pork and bacon sourced from his own farm in Tipperary and from members of the Tipperary Food Network.

You can’t miss the incredible smells that waft out from the Poulet Bonne Femme chicken rotisserie at the front of the shop where shoppers and diners drift in. On the opening weekend, McCarthy and Mitchell are working in incredibly hot conditions – their fan isn’t working yet – but they’re still smiling and cheerful, excited that their business has taken a new direction.

“We’ll be here every day,” McCarthy says. “We’ve taken on three new staff for the markets. Their free-range chicken, marinated overnight before roasting, was previously only available from their mobile units at farmers’ markets. Now they’re roasting Silver Hill duck as well as chicken, and plan to do pig-on-a-spit at weekends. A full chicken is €12.50, and they’re also selling their own homemade chicken stock.

Opposite the rotisserie there’s an enclosed cheese and charcuterie room with a carefully selected range of cheeses at optimum ripeness and a variety of Italian and Irish charcuterie. This is the domain of Elaine O’Connor, who many customers will recognise from Sheridans, where she worked previously.

There’s a heady aroma in the small space, which is why, along with temperature control, it’s behind glass doors. Whole smoked mackerel from Frank Hederman are glistening like jewels, and there’s fridge stocking a variety of wild game, mostly from Co Wicklow, including pigeon (€4.80), red legged partridge (€7) and quail (€3.50).

Simon Kilcoyne of Artisan Foods is supplying vegetables from Gold River organic farm and other Irish sources, as well as shipping in supplies from Rungis, a wholesale market outside Paris, twice a week. Brown paper bags are supplied for you to fill with just as much baby spinach, mixed leaves, rocket and frisée as you require, and the produce, displayed in wooden crates, is bursting with freshness.

If you bristle a bit at seeing French sweetcorn on the shelves, at least it’s sitting beside majestic January King Irish cabbages, and the same diversity of choice, across Irish and imported products, runs throughout the store. So you’ll see La Fermière French yoghurts in their pretty little violet glazed pot, but there is also Glenilen Farm and Moonshine Dairy, if you prefer. Doves Farm organic flour from Berkshire has Macroom stoneground wholewheat alongside it, and Irish rapeseed oils get as much prominence as olive oils.

The full Avoca range of ready meals, soups, sauces, breads and cakes is on sale, but even within that, Pratt has made personal selections for what is obviously his pride and joy within the Avoca group. He believes that the brand’s best bread is baked in the Rathcoole branch and the best scones are made in Powerscourt, so that’s what’s sold in Monkstown. He puts the superiority of these two products down to – “the ovens in the case of Powerscourt, and the skill of the baker in Rathcoole”.

You won’t find any sparkly dresses, spotty china or plaid throws in Monkstown. This one’s all about food, which the company has recognised as a growth area in recessionary times. “People mightn’t be buying a new winter coat when they come in, but we’ve seen growth in little treats, so that’s become much more central to what we do,” he says.

Avoca Food Market and Salt Café, The Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin. See avoca.ie, tel: 01-2020230