The Silk Road Cafe

Sibella’s on the golf course. Foodmad’s in Kerry. Bangles is God knows where, The Litry Chick is writing 1,000 words against the clock and I don’t think The Silk Road Cafe, this week’s target, is quite the Knocklyon Princess’s bag. Ten to eleven and still no lunch date. What the hell to do?

After due consideration I decided the only thing was to get a taxi uptown and find someone who was hungry – a skint student, a pensioner, anyone would do as long as they owned two hands and a gob. Well, one hand, even.

With a bit of luck, I reasoned, I might even bump into some old buddy with time on his hands. I didn’t. Still, fate and good fortune intervened. I’m outside the Chester Beatty Library, playing sad Billy No Mates, when I spotted her.

Tall, leggy, a beret askew on her head, an artist’s portfolio trapped under her arm while she counted the coins in her purse. I knew intuitively she was wondering what she could afford to eat and drink.

She has to be foreign, I mused, with that sallow skin and glossy black hair. The grounds of Dublin castle this day held enough freckly blondes to fill a skip. I stepped up, with thirty seconds to convince her I was not a lascivious old perv. Hoping she wouldn’t holler copper I did “Bonjour, ola, ciaio”. I must have sounded like Dell Boy.

Nicole (let’s call her) was French but she had fair English. Like a nervous gambler I laid my three cards down: “Free”, “Food”, “No strings”. Unbelievably, I won the hand. We went inside and queued up with the civil servants.

Other critics have waxed lyrical about The Silk Road. I can see why. For a start there’s a good story. Abraham Phelan, the chef/proprietor is a Palestinian who took his wife’s surname because his own was too difficult for the Irish to pronounce. Abraham’s food is fresh, tasty, inexpensive and very different from that of the many humdrum cafes that infest central Dublin. The salads look a picture, there’s a varied choice of mains and the coffee is pristine.

There are some flaws in the operation, though. Table service is not an option. While the regulars were greeted like long lost friends my own polite attempt to ascertain just what the various bains maries contained was met with something approaching mute hostility, an implied “You’re holding everyone up. You should have done your homework before you joined the queue”.

Nicole is studying art in Montpelier. As my own art education stopped with the post-Impressionists many of her favourites were lost on me. She loves food, in fact her dad was a chef – “though not at anywhere fameux”. She points out that her chicken curry was well over-seasoned. At her invitation, I took a mouthful and got that swimming-in-the Med-with-your-mouth-open sensation instantly. The curry was not actually much cop; I’ve had spicier gravies and there wasn’t even much taste to the chicken. The red rice was very good though, every grain a roller.

My lamb moussaka was very civilised, with pronounced flavour, a remarkably wallpaper paste-free bechamel and a proper ‘separate but cohesive’ quality to the spicing. I prefer aubergine to spuds in my moussaka but, as an example of the latter, this one was well conceived. Of the salads, a special mention goes to the couscous which had none of that boil-in-a-bag quality you find in other places.

We toasted our entente cordiale in quarter bottles of Faustino VII Rioja, anyodyne but not entirely disgusting. For dessert we shared an assortment of dried fruit, dates and lokum – Turkish delight – and partook of an espresso and a cappuccino, both of excellent quality before we said our adieus.

Later I decided that this is about as democratic a review as could be got. Maybe, instead of inviting the likes of Tom’s pals, Paolo’s socialites and my own motley crew of hand-picked guinea pig gastronomes, we grub hacks should be inveigling people encountered in the streets to dine with us, maybe on a horses-for-courses basis, viz: geezer in a three piece suit – L’Ecrivain; dolly bird – Marco PW’s; busker – Shebeen Chic. It won’t be easy. A couple of years ago I undertook a commission from this newspaper to give away crisp tenners on Grafton Street to celebrate some sort of ‘Love thy neighbour Day’. Most refused to accept the bounty. One or two held the notes up to the light to see if they were kosher. Did somebody tell them there’s no such thing as a free forgery?

Anyhow, comparing notes Nicole and ‘Papa’ found we had the same enthusiasms and the same reservations. We hailed the  menu with its wide choice of options; we hated the surly service. We were prepared to dismiss the excess of salt in the curry as a one-off but not the insipid spicing. More care from the cook, more smiles from the servers and Silk Road would be every bit as good as other critics say it is.

Verdict: Interesting middle-eastern food. Good value. Service a tad glum.

Rating: ***

Silk Road Cafe, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 4070770