New Frontiers: Angela Ruttledge on a Post-Pandemic Restaurant Launch

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ANGELA RUTTLEDGE CO-OWNS NEW PHIBSBOROUGH RESTAURANT MONCK’S GREEN. HERE SHE TALKS NEW BEGINNINGS, PANDEMIC PROBLEMS AND THE FUTURE OF THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY – AND WHY SHE’S WAITING PATIENTLY FOR A BUZZ IN THE RESTAURANT ONCE AGAIN …

Tell us about your new business …

Monck’s Green is the new name for Woodstock, which was something of a dining institution in Dublin 7 for the last 26 years. The dining room and kitchen on Phibsborough Road have undergone a complete transformation and it is now open for breakfast, brunch and lunch, although obviously currently takeaway only. Soon we’ll be open for dinner too. Monck’s Green is co-owned by my sister and brother-in-law Michelle and Liam Moloughney and myself. We also run a tea room called Olive’s Room in St Anne’s Park.

People ask us about the name change. Woodstock had an almost cult-like status, a reputation for hearty food built up over decades, why would we mess with that? Well, in March 2020, it felt a bit like the sky was suddenly falling down. Like everyone in the industry we were sucker punched by the pandemic. Then we said, you know what, we are not going to ground on this thing. We are lucky enough in terms of our location – Phibsborough is a quirky mixture of period suburban and gritty urban and there was still a market for us – so we were not throwing in the tea towel over Covid-19! I’ve repeated this phrase a lot. It means I don’t have to use the R word, resilience, which has to be the most overused word of 2020, and is really about how we’re running along but fall in the dirt, eat the dirt and say, actually that’s probably really good dirt for my immune system, full of yummy fibre too, then get up and keep going. I’m in wonder at our resilience as a species, our persistence. But resilience is beginning to have a nasty edge.

Basically, when the proverbial hits the fan, and you have to be a doughty, tea towel wielding wee restaurateur, you want to be sure you are cooking only what you are really fired up about – in our case it’s simple, casual but beautifully prepared food using the best ingredients – and serving it in a room you really love. No jazz hands. The new name signals this intention, but I hope the choice, suggested by a family friend, fastens the new eatery to Dublin 7 more than ever: Monck’s Green is the English translation of the original Irish name for Phibsborough (Broadstone), Glas Mochonóg.

We met Eoin Morris, who is now head chef at Monck’s Green, in August. It was like meeting Liam’s long lost twin – Eoin shares a vision of seemingly relaxed but lovingly prepared food. Eoin joined our general manager Diane Guli and our head pastry chef Nikesh (Nik) Babooram to make our dream team.

We are usually hands on and try to do it all ourselves, but for the first time we hired an interior designer to help us, and we went to interior architects 21 Spaces. They completely understood what we wanted, functionality and a space that was finished, yet did not look ‘done up’. Liam designed the kitchen and oversaw the works. Even the renovation was harder than normal, trying to keep the site safe and make everybody that came and went adhere to our infection prevention standards. We’ve installed a wine bar with the Winelab system so our wines can be served by the glass and carafe as well as by the bottle. Again, it’s about a casual space, and choice. It’s also about trying to be a bit more sustainable. Because they are in kegs, the wines have less packaging and a lighter footprint than bottled wines, and the product is perfectly preserved in a vacuumed closed system.

We’ve also built a parklet, which is a little outdoor space carved out of a parking or loading space and originally made popular in San Francisco. The concept was one submitted by local architect Robert Bourke to Dublin City Council to create more space on our streets. It is built from corton steel, which gives it a bright orangey pop of colour on the outside, is painted green on the inside, and topped with lots of grasses. It feels like a garden deck and creates an impression of openness, a greening of what was very grey, and now it feels more like a village outside our window.

It was Nik, our pastry chef, who thought of moving our coffee and juice bar just inside the door, where it’s easy for people to pick something up on the move. We’ve also popped a hatch in our front window, a pandemic perfect idea for service. Nik created some delicious new bite size treats for a working from home pick me up, like our vegan friendly chocolate bun with homemade ‘nutella’, a fig madeleine, and lavender fancy. We also made a move to McCabe’s Coffee, the first carbon negative roaster in Ireland, and we are using their organic, single origin Colombian.

What have the last six months been like for you?

One morning last February my husband got on his bike to go to work and promptly had a head-on collision with another cyclist. They ended up in the Mater. When they bashed each other the helmets that saved their lives also split open their foreheads in a crazy zigzag. My husband had a fractured skull and a bleed on his brain. Thankfully he was fine. A week later I was in a vineyard four hours outside Sydney, watching my oldest friend get married. I travelled with my bestie, who plied me alternately with Alka Seltzer, champagne, vitamin C and Anxicalm on the flight. When we weren’t attending the wedding celebrations we nursed our jet lag watching television, and saw the empty aisles in Woolworths where the toilet roll should have been as people engaged in panic buying. On our phones we saw that the first cases of Covid-19 had been detected in Ireland. As we rode the bus back to town after the wedding I got a text from the Restaurants Association of Ireland – would I talk to a journalist about what was happening? But there was nothing I could say. No tactic I could argue. It was unimaginable.

We landed back in Dublin on Thursday – the schools were closed the next day. Then came the restaurants. In 26 years, we had only ever been closed for Christmas and Stephen’s Day, and for very short periods during a refurbishment. Power cuts, water cuts, we’d never given up before. By Sunday I texted Paschal Donohoe, please lock us down! (Serious shout out to Minister Donohoe, our local TD, for his non-stop work during this mess of a year). On St Patrick’s Day, usually one of the busiest days of the year for our business, we sat at home and listened to our daughter singing Ireland’s Call, which she had learned in the Montessori class that she’d never get to go back to.

That three-week period was beyond surreal.

Melodrama notwithstanding, it was traumatic having to close, having to lay everybody off. The team was amazing, they just got on with it. Bizarrely, the clean up felt a bit like Christmas Eve. Finding a home for all the food. Food Cloud put us in touch with Janice, an amazing chef in Cheeverstown House, so the food didn’t go to waste. It was the highlight in an otherwise dark day.

When we initially reopened for takeaway in April it was like opening a business from scratch and we were uncertain whether it could work. There was a new menu to consider, a new website. There were protocols to absorb, systems to implement, a raft of infection prevention measures. Because our suppliers were so severely hit by the restaurant closures, their capacity to deliver was reduced. One day I was left to do the orders and I got so frustrated I took a kitchen scissors to my hair and hacked it off without even looking in the mirror. For a while I went around looking unhinged, until my sister-in-law took pity on me and fixed my ‘do in the back garden.

In July we gave up watching the news and threw ourselves into the idea of Monck’s Green and menu development. We closed at the end of August and reopened a second time in the middle of October. The initial focus is on breakfast, brunch and lunch. We’ve kept the popular buttermilk pancakes, but added a version with berries, white chocolate ganache and coconut crumble. We still have a traditional fry, but we’ve added a tofu burrito and Shakshouka. Eoin has created a ‘Pea Smash Toast’ with poached eggs and peanut rayu, a really interesting dish with minty peas, smoky aubergine, some Japanese flavours from the rayu and a bit of heat from our fermented hot sauce. For lunch we make our own flatbreads as a base for the likes of hake tempura or lamb koftas, as well as well-crafted favourites like the toastie with Hegarty’s cheese and ham hock, or the Reuben with pastrami and our own dill pickle and house sauerkraut. Generally we’ve introduced a lot more more veggies and our salads give them a starring role, like the one with roast carrot, bulgur wheat, orange, dukkah, tarragon and kale pesto.

How do you think hospitality will change as a result of the pandemic?

The devastation wreaked on hospitality businesses has highlighted the role they play in our society, the employment they create, and the producers they support. We were defined by being the Small Open Economy, dead without our export competitiveness, and tech firms got all the glory. That has changed. There has also been a straight shift of market place from the city centre to the suburbs. And you would always have said hospitality is the one thing that can’t move online, but an element of it can. It’s almost too obvious to point out to the surge in click and collection and home deliveries. The challenge for ‘proper’ restaurants has been to maintain the quality with food that won’t be eaten straight away and doesn’t travel well.

At the moment we are judged on the quality of our infection prevention measures as much as the quality of our product, our hospitality. Where once it was, Monck’s Green has the best scones in Dublin, crunchy on the outside, melty on the inside, now it’s Monck’s Green has simply the best sanitiser, automatic, not too acidic… it’s practically a manicure!

What are you looking forward to?

Letting my guard down. My shoulders have been permanently tensed since March.

A buzz in the restaurant, the type that comes with the place being jointed. Watching the business get back to normal trading. A gaggle of ladies sitting in our parklet with glasses of wine and a few plates of food, enjoying the evening sun and watching the world go by. Proper plates and cutlery. Not having to step away from an old gent who leans in to tell you a story.

Actually, as essential workers our lives haven’t changed that much, we still go out to work every day. But what I’m really looking forward to is life getting back to normal for other people. Our parents. My older nephews and niece lolling around in college. My kids’ Irish dancing class, ballet class, art class, swimming. For real, not online. Those extracurricular teachers haven’t had much airtime in all of this. I can’t wait till they’re able to share their passion again, to show my pair about beautiful things, creating things, moving their little bodies so they don’t stiffen up like me!

Finally, I’m involved with Phizzfest, Phibsborough’s community and arts festival. We had such an amazing festival planned for 2020. I’m looking forward to seeing that play out next year. I have high hopes for 2021.

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