Café Noir, Limerick, by Valerie O’Connor

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  • Pat O'Sullivan

Pat O’Sullivan says he’s a dreamer, stirring one of several cappuccinos he will down today, as he gazes from the window of Café Noir number three on Limerick’s Georgian O’Connell Street. This café was made for the building, or vice verse, with it’s typical high ceilings and genuine sash windows it’s a perfect meeting of minds and styles, like it was always there. The same can be said for Café Noir, the group of cafés founded by Pat back in 2007. To take these cafés out of Limerick would leave the coffee without any, well, society.  What separates a dreamer and a do-er is anyone’s guess, but with a biography enviable by the Nigel Slaters of this world, Pat has been immersed in food since his knee high days growing up in the hills of South Kerry. “I was one of eight kids and while my brothers were great working on the farm, I loved being in the kitchen with my mother getting the meals ready and making cakes and jam. Mum was great at pastry and we did everything ourselves from growing the vegetables to salting our own pig. That was normal to us, it was a given, good food was the back bone of our lives.” Just as well given the eight mile trek they had to make to and from school every day.

He popped his culinary cherry washing pots in Waterville and went on to train at Rockwell catering college and straight into a job as sous chef at the Dunraven Arms, Adare. By the age of 23 he was head chef at the Castletroy Park Hotel and leading 14 other chefs in the kitchen, oh and he had become a Dad in the meantime. “Everything was done in-house in those days”, he reminisces “We did our own butchery, fish filleting, baking, then everything began to be outsourced and the whole scene changed”.

This spurred him on to set up Masterchefs, a catering company looking after the well-heeled glitterati and corporate events. With several solid clients in the books he was able to turn the dream of Café Noir into reality. “We had some great people on our team and it was clear that there was a gap in the café market. I was inspired by the simple menus on offer in Paris cafés and was sure I could do something like that here in Limerick”. With the talented pastry chef Mary Lane at the helm he developed his unique selling point, really good fresh breads. Sounds obvious, but how easy is it to get a decent sandwich made with bread that has a good crust and an airily light texture? A staple few were developed and the queues began forming at the first location on Robert Street.  Good fresh salad, tossed to order.  Quiches, two types; one of goats cheese and spinach and the other of ham and cheddar. A slice of this on a plate with a side salad is a hearty meal, full of flavour and fast. Sausage rolls are by legendary artisan butcher James McGeough in Oughterard. These babies are the juiciest and most indulgent you will get a flaky pastry around. McGeough makes them for no-one else and the Cafés warm up over one thousand rolls per week. One is never enough, that’s why they come in twos. Good coffee is a given and cakes are retro meringue swans, eclairs, tiny cheesecakes and opulent chocolate gateaux. Piaf or Bruni scratch away in the background and the hum of conversation never stops. Lately Robert Street has opened its doors to a later crowd, serving up tapas and wine, a welcome diversion for the pub and restaurant scene. The pretty courtyard, flanked by St. Michael’s church, makes for a character filled little enclave in the city.

The obvious success of the first premises led to an ambitious project on the Dublin Road where there was nothing but an empty hotel building. The building is now occupied by Travelodge and Café Noir. They stay open late to serve up light meals, jerk chicken sandwiches, a good burger, steak and mushroom pie, fish pie and the mainstay quiches to feed hungry travellers and a regular crowd from the university.  Prices are keen and you can do well for a tenner.  The trademark black and white striped decor is throughout and prints of Paris scenes can take you away from our wet and windy climate. 

O’Connell Street was next up, to serve the business community in the city, and the most recent café is in the impressive World Music Academy Building at Limerick University. It seems Pat has the midas touch, with skilled chefs like Jonathan Rohan at his side making his quiches, it’s no wonder this is such a formula for success. Because quality is controlled centrally, nothing is left to chance. The cafés sell good local food and preserves, mustards and chutneys, fruit drinks and wine. Pat never seems to tire of the food trade, as we chat about pop-up restaurants and wild boar sausages, it’s clear that many of his dreams become reality. He’s got wit and generosity to boot, and an endless supply of cake. Is it safe to say that il ne regrette rien?

Valerie O’Connor