Sunday, 22 August 2010

Coffee and shopping in Dublin

The Cake Cafe, Dublin

Sorry for the delay in posting... it has proved inordinately tricky to set up broadband here in the new house – even getting a landline has taken a fortnight. But on all other fronts it is great, and really energising, to be in Dublin.

I’m glad to report that the coffee situation here is looking seriously good. The Cake Café, off Camden Street, lives up to its excellent reputation. Hidden away in an unpromising alleyway, about five minutes’ walk from St Stephen’s Green, it’s pretty small but – in a spirit of optimism – has plenty of seats outside, sheltered by bamboo. You reach it by walking to the back of a stationery shop, Daintree’s, and then out through a tunnel of bamboo, like something out of a grown-up Harry Potter. With its home-baked bread, mis-matched crockery, black-and-white-tiled floor and shelves stacked with packets of flour, the cafe has the laidback, effortlessly cool vibe of Jones Dairy in Columbia Road. There are pretty fairy cakes in silver cases, huge slabs of brownie, great (double shot) coffees and a small selection of things you really want to eat for lunch: the day’s soup, tart or salad, plus a host of chunky sandwiches and hearty platefuls of Portugese sardines on toast, and hotpot. Well worth searching out.

Smock boutique continues to stock a fabulous edit, from Veronique Branquinho to Acne. The latter's short Pistol boots are a great staple for autumn/winter (the Acne online store is offering free postage this week), and the Zorah black dress epitomises the label's much-hyped wearable chic. There's a rail-load of Acne at Brown Thomas too, Dublin's finest, most glamorous department store. For many seasons now BT has catered purely for the super-rich, it seems – Lanvin, Gucci, Balmain – but new additions such as L'Agence, Thakoon, Isobel Marant Etoile, T by Alexander Wang (such gorgeous fabrics, such easy style, at Whistles prices!) and Carven offer a new layer of edge and wearability. Wang's current bag, the Darcy slouch hobo, is the best he's done yet, I reckon ($850 at, or around £547).

The stand-out collection in store right now, for me, is Paul & Joe. This label goes from strength to strength. Now healthy enough to advertise even in the most glossy of glossies, Paul & Joe have a strong a/w 2010 collection featuring the perfect little black dress in jersey, accentuated with a silver leaf (£465), a chic wool/cashmere coat, eccentric swan-print tops and a beautiful kimono-sleeved black and white print silk mini dress that makes a striking statement. They have teamed up with Pierre Cardin for a few pieces too.

Back on cardigan/coats for autumn (see post 5 August), M&S have come up trumps with a Rick Owens-esque long cardi with alpaca for around £50, plus a long waterfall cashmere cardi in grey or a latte colour for around £150. As usual with M&S these won't be easy to track down; though they're in the Dublin store right now they don't feature on the website. Their cashmere section is always worth a look, though.

Elsewhere, H&M have been doing a simple navy and red-striped Breton top for less than a tenner that nods to Marc Jacobs' bold stripes this season; it's worth rifling their chaotic store for.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Beside the sea

Last night I swam in the Irish sea in the rain. The sky was silver and the water was completely calm, with just a slight swell as raindrops smattered the surface. It was cold, still and utterly exhilarating.

Living by the sea is even more magical than I imagined. There is always something to look at, from the hardy early morning swimmers first thing in the morning and the kids hunting for crabs and periwinkles to the kite-surfers in the evening and tentative lines of young canoeists having lessons. And yesterday, there were dolphins out in the bay. When the tide’s out we take cups of tea onto the sand and the kids run around; it’s like being permanently on holiday.

The swimmers change and congregate by the Martello tower, and it’s a wonderfully eccentric sight – a bunch of all ages, all shapes, standing in their pants as they contemplate the icy waters. Locals stroll around the streets and squares in their dressing gowns as they head down to the water. It’s like having a giant open-air swimming pool. And boy, it beats paying an awful lot of cash per month to have water kicked in your face for 20 minutes by the Alpha Male doing messy crawl in front as you plough up and down the chlorinated, sweaty pool.

The feeling when you get out of the sea is fantastic – you feel energized, exhilarated, your skin glowing and tingling – and a cup of tea never tasted so good. Yep, I'm a convert – though ask me again come November....

Talking of the sea, there’s a book festival in Dun Laoghaire from 7-12 September and I’ve booked to see John Banville, Booker winner for the wonderfully evocative and moving The Sea. I'm also seeing Jonathan Coe and Ross Raisin (Raisin’s God’s Own Country is a brilliantly dark first novel set in the moors of Yorkshire).

So far, so very good – and I haven't even told you about the Cake Cafe yet... next time.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Knits for now

Knitted fisherman rib cardigan, £45, Topshop

Knits are big news for autumn/winter, as seen on the catwalks of Michael Kors, Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs. From chunky sweaters to cashmere cardis, there's a great range of cosy, classy woolies around. It's Val Doonican all the way, with Stella's cardi dress and McQueen's sweater dresses, plus romantic takes like Dior's soft chunky-knit cardigan threaded through with silky blue ribbon. Pair them with silk skirts to great effect, as seen at Louis Vuitton, Dries Van Noten, Marc Jacobs and Richard Nicoll – another take on cosy glam.

This season lots of designers have also come up with 'cardigowns' – a term coined, I think, by Hush, the masters of fine pyjamas and comfortable lounge wear. A cross between a cardigan and a dressing gown, and even a coat if it's fine, these are the home-worker’s ideal piece of clothing – chuck it over pyjamas and it looks like you got dressed. It's warm yet looks good, especially when spun from the softest of cashmere.

Designers like Nicole Farhi and Pringle always do this look especially well. Farhi’s wool/cashmere tops are an elegant and versatile wardrobe staple, useful with both jeans and dresses. This season, the best versions are ruinously expensive: Rick Owens’ black chunky alpaca cardi (£580) is wonderfully decadent, as is Diane von Furstenberg’s long Chung cardigan in 100% cashmere (£367), an investment piece that will last well for years. Also check out Burberry’s chunky cashmere-blend cardigan and Vivienne Westwood's black version (£412), and the rather more reasonable grey open cardigan by Day Birger and Mikkelson (£139). I like Paul & Joe Sister's cable-knit (£145), too. The ultimate throw-ons are the feather-soft cashmere versions by Irish knitwear designer Lainey Keogh – but, yikes, when we say 'investment piece', we're talking life savings/pension/hefty percentage of salary-type investment.

Turning to the high street, look at Topshop’s fisherman rib cardigan (see top, £45) in very of-the-season camel, or black. The jumper version in blue (£42) would look fantastic with a satin skirt, as would the Vuitton-esque cropped cable jumper. I still think camel's a tough colour to wear, though – it's really just a shade of brown, after all, and for me black wins every time. A classic camel coat's all very well, but unless it's by Celine (see Garance Doré's great blog for proof) it's hard to hanker after something that looks like it's been languishing in your granny's wardrobe for the last few decades, whatever the September issues tell us.

Day Birger and Mikkelson, £139,

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Dublin calling

Moving house is always a funny thing. But in less than a week we’re moving not only to a new house but also to a new country – Ireland – which feels a bit of a big one. It feels like we’re about to jump off a cliff. In a good way.

I am really excited about living right next to the sea; there is a Martello tower and a swimming club directly in front of the (rented, rambling) house, and I’m intending to join the hardy old ladies who swim there daily whatever the weather (though in an industrial-strength wetsuit rather than a one-piece and a flowery hat).

Naturally, I have checked out the café situation as a matter of urgency, and it looks very healthy: I am looking forward to hunting out the Bald Barista, who reputedly makes the best coffee in Dublin (according to Time Out), and the Cake Café in Camden Street, which sounds more than promising. And of course there’s always the classic Bewleys, and Café Cagliostro over the bridge, and a clutch of good spots round Smock Alley...

Not that good coffee is the only consideration in moving to a new country – but you have to start somewhere….