Sat 2 Jul 2011
When I first moved into Mountaineering Man’s apartment, he was very forthcoming about the unfortunate realities of his neighborhood. He insisted I never go out on my own after dark – even to the corner shop – and be very aware of my surroundings when walking around during the day.
The area, known as The Coombe, does have its dodgy aspects. But lately I’ve really warmed to the neighborhood and its surrounding districts and have even discovered a few gems. About a month ago I started walking to my gym, which exposed me to a little nook in the area full of bustling shops and street vendors I’d never seen up close before. Now, instead of noticing the abandoned buildings and strung-out junkies I see the beautiful cakes in bakery windows and the sweet old Polish ladies who warm the shop stoops sharing gossip over tea.
Walking down Meath Street is always a sensory delight; there are aproned butchers hauling whole carcasses on their shoulders, smells of fresh-baked bread wafting down the street and the sing-song sales calls of the ladies hawking a variety of cheap accessories at tables along the footpaths. Get your Flossies here, now half-price! they call out, referencing the colorful cotton shoes that are a hot item among the local street vendors right now. On the same table there is an odd variety of items including chocolates, candles, toothpaste and greeting cards – all at bargain prices.
The businesses here are all small mom-and-pop type places. There’s the Chinese hair salon, which is always packed with petite, lavender-haired grannies. There’s a Polish food shop that has a million types of pickled cucumbers and dry-cured sausages, and there are a few quirky clothing stores that specialise in cheap, frilly frocks – especially over-the-top sequined numbers. It’s fun to window shop and there’s always lots to see.
Around the corner on Thomas Street there are a few places that I’ve fallen in love with. There is a fantastic Mediterranean grocer offering a mind-boggling selection of Indian spices, flatbreads and Asian condiments; it’s difficult for me to walk by without going in and even harder to walk out without buying something. And it’s so cheap! A huge bag of bulgur wheat is a mere 1.75 Euro and a hefty bunch of fresh mint only 70 cents. The place is easy to find as it neighbors Vicar Street, the popular music venue.
MM recently took me to dinner at Just Off Francis, an adorable little bistro also on Thomas Street. The menu is small, changes daily and is all about quality comfort food like burgers and pasta. For a starter, we shared perhaps the best chicken wings I’ve ever had. Instead of being fried, the wings were baked and then tossed in a light sauce of chili, lemon and fresh parsley. The succulent, moist meat fell off the bone and the sauce was nice and tangy without overpowering the chicken. We each had a burger for our mains: MM had one with a jalapeno/tomato salsa and I went for a basic with cheese. Instead of fries, they were served with oven-roasted baby potatoes that had been split in half and cooked until crispy around the edges. Frank, the owner, came over and chatted with us for a good while – a real personal touch that I really appreciated.
Next door is Cafe Noto, a coffee cafe boasting high ceilings over an exposed brick wall – very New York urban chic. MM and I recently went for the first time and shared a delicious chicken Panini and a lovely oat and honey biscuit for lunch with excellent coffee. The atmosphere is inviting with loads of tables and comfortable chairs. It’s the kind of place where you can curl up with the newspaper or laptop and no one bothers you. There’s plenty of good, healthy food choices and lots of sweet treats to go with your tea or coffee.
I think the lesson here is that with a little digging, you can unearth some real diamonds even in the roughest of neighborhoods. Funnily enough we’re looking to move and though I never thought I’d say this I’m actually going to miss The Coombe and all its quirky little nooks and crannies when we go. But with places like the Fay’s Butcher and Just Off Francis, we’ll make it a point to visit often.
The first time I stopped into the Mediterranean shop on Thomas Street I came out with all the ingredients for a fantastic Med feast. Though it seems like a lot of work, every element of this feast is quick and easy and can be done in advance. Serve with some whole wheat pitta or flat bread for an incredibly satisfying dinner.
Lemon Garlic Chicken Skewers:
1 lb chicken breast, cut into large cubes
1 large white onion, cut into large chunks
The juice of one whole lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt & pepper
Skewer your chicken breast cubes and onion pieces – I usually do every other piece onion/chicken. Set aside. In a large baking dish pour in the lemon juice and add the garlic and olive oil with a few pinches of sea salt and pepper and mix. Place the skewers into the marinade and roll around to coat. Put in the refrigerator for an hour or up to 5 hours.
When ready to cook: Preheat your oven to 170 degrees. Cover the baking dish with tin foil and place into the oven to bake for 15 minutes. Remove the tin foil and place back into the oven for 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Sea salt to taste
In a food processor, whiz together all the ingredients. You can add tahini if you have it but when I made this I didn’t, and it actually turned out fine. Add salt to taste and serve.
8 ounces natural yogurt
About 1/2 of a large cucumber, sliced into small dice (should be about the size of a 1-cent euro coin!)
Squeeze of lemon juice
Sea salt to taste
In a bowl mix together the yogurt, cucumber and lemon juice. Add salt to taste. Place in the fridge for at least two hours – you want the cucumber flavour to infuse the yogurt. Serve!
1.5 cups (or two tea cups for you Irish/UK!) of bulgur wheat
2 1/4 cups (or two and a fourth tea cups!) of boiling water
2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
About a dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 of a large cucumber (use the other half from Tzatziki!), sliced
Juice from 1 small lemon
About 10 mint leaves, minced
Big handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Put the bulgur wheat into a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the bulgur and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a few pinches of sea salt and stir. Cover with cling film or a lid and let sit for an hour.
After an hour the bulgur wheat would have absorbed all the liquid – fluff with a fork. Now add in the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, tomatoes, cucumber, lemon juice, mint leaves and parsley and mix together. Season with sea salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or cold.