Southwest of Dublin, Ireland, there’s a town in County Carlow called, Leighlinbridge. Evan Murray, a manager and owner of Murray’s Garden Centre in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, was in Leighlinbridge visiting Arboretum Home and Garden Heaven. Arboretum is a garden centre that, like many these days, also sells lots of non-garden stuff. Across the pond the preferred term is, “lifestyle” centre, a popular Euro descriptor for such hybrids. After seeing Arboretum’s bustling 200 seat restaurant, Evan Murray had an idea. He would put a café at Murray’s Garden Centre.
Murray’s has always been a magnet for avid gardeners, those with green thumbs, and visitors hoping to develop even the slightest tinge of viridescence on that useful digit. In our house, it’s spouse who possesses the emerald thumb, but I tag along on garden centre visits to take in the beauty of the plants and blooms. I may not know a peony from a rhododendron, but I know and appreciate beauty when I see it. Of course, there’s also the warm, tropical-like air of the greenhouses. Sometimes, I stand in one for several seconds, with my eyes closed, and imagine I’m in the Seychelles or Bali. We live in hope.
Being an eater and restaurant aficionado, I was tickled to learn about the Grounds Café, Murray’s new on-site eatery. I now have a reason to visit Murray’s that has nothing to do with gardens, plants or greenhouses. And, according to Evan Murray, the Grounds Café will be open year-round, even through the dark, desperate months of January, February and March. The hope is that special events, food seminars, cooking demos, tastings and the like will carry them, on a northwest wind, all the way to spring.
The Grounds Café is situated in Murray’s store at the bright, large windowed southern end, where the garden tools, fertilizers and herbicides used to be kept. Once you’ve walked through the front half of the room – which still contains garden furniture, tools, and potted plants – you’re in the café. Before the change, I don’t think many would have pictured the space as being restaurant material. Turns out, it was.
Despite the concrete floor, the Grounds Café benefits from an abundance of natural light, lots of real wood, and plenty of potted cultigens in all shapes, shades and sizes. Not to mention the edible herbs. Next to our table was a bank of containers growing pea shoots, basil, dill and parsley. A service counter, next to the café’s well-equipped open kitchen, contains a glass fronted cooler filled with cakes, quiche, sandwiches, salads and a variety of commercial beverages. A café’s coffee is critical. The Grounds Café brews the very good Trinity Coffee Company java, exclusively.
Spouse ordered the kale salad, which was a revelation to me. At first I didn’t think it contained any kale. I saw some arugula – which was wonderfully peppery, the way nasturtium leaves taste peppery – sliced scallions, crushed almonds, flower petals and what I thought was leafy lettuce. Ingredients were exquisitely fresh and a light coating of sesame lime vinaigrette made the whole thing taste superb. Still, why was it called, “kale salad?”
The great kale mystery was solved when I spoke with Amanda “Andie” Bulman, one of the cooks.
“We have large leaf kale. It doesn’t look like regular kale. We throw some arugula in with it. It’s grown in the greenhouses out back. It’s spring and it’s so young. I think if you let it sit, it would become the hard kale that we know. But it’s harvested really early, so it’s tender.”
I gave up on the hard, bitter kale a long time ago, but I’m all for the tender, early harvested spring kale.
Spouse followed the salad with something called, bacon and egg toast, with avocado hummus and spicy aioli. Two pieces of toasted Grounds made bread were spread with the avocado hummus and topped with hard cooked egg, crispy bacon, the aioli and a sprinkle of sliced scallions. The spicy aioli was a key ingredient, giving the open-face snack some real kick.
The bacon and egg toast reminded me of a breakfast that’s popular in Australia called, avocado toast. With the influx of Aussies to America, it’s also become quite trendy in some New York City bistros. Basically, it’s toast spread with mashed avocado and topped with a variety of things: poached egg, fried egg, cheese, et cetera. I’m happy to see that the Grounds Café is au courant on the avocado toast front.
Nick van Mele is executive chef at the Grounds Café and he’s big on quiche, specifically those small individual sized ones. Mine was good. Egg, cooked to omelette consistency, filled an impressively made, delicate pastry shell. It was covered with pea shoots. In fact, almost everything we ordered seemed to have something tender and green on it, or in it, an apposite contribution given where we were, Murray’s Garden Centre.
Green and creamy
My quiche came with a bowl of dairy-free spinach soup. I was amazed by the soup’s creaminess. Again, Andie Bulman told me it was because it was young, new spinach. “It’s cooked with garlic and onions for a long time.” She said they weren’t totally happy with the green colour and are planning a spinach and cashew soup. Call me crazy, but when I order spinach soup, I like that it’s green. Besides, this soup was excellent. It had a pleasant, mild flavour and the drizzle of roasted shallot oil made it even more delicious.
When we placed our order, I couldn’t take my eyes off the rhubarb squares – actually, they were rectangles – on top of the counter. They had a sugary top, the colour of cotton candy – the traditional pink kind, not that awful blue cotton candy. Anyway, because I love rhubarb, and was intrigued by the pink, sugary coating, I had one of the rhubarb squares.
It was outstanding. The shortbread was made from almond flour; the filling of cooked rhubarb was topped with rhubarb sugar, made by whizzing up sugar with dehydrated bits of the colour-rich outer skin of the rhubarb. Not only was the rhubarb sugar nicely coloured, it wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting.
Cloyingly sweet desserts aren’t my favourite, so the tart, mildly sweet rhubarb shortbread was a graceful ending.
The Grounds Café was a brilliant idea. It’s brought an existing business to a more inclusive level by providing a service that everybody can enjoy, regardless of age or horticultural credentials. All thumbs are welcome.
Price: Lunch for two with coffee, tip and tax costs approximately $50.
Service Helpful and friendly.
Atmosphere: Laid back and casual.
Sound level: Moderate.
Open: Monday to Saturday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Reservations: Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Murray’s Garden Centre parking lot.
Beverages: Coffee, tea, iced tea, sparkling water, apple and orange juice.
Best bets: Spinach soup, young kale salad, egg and bacon toast, rhubarb shortbread square.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website: www.karlwells.com
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells