It can’t be easy being a teenager. You’ve all the pressure of maintaining a cool front on your Facebook site (which you update every three minutes), the hormones are raging, growth spurts are still an occasional hazard and skin care is a daily battle against wave after wave of spots and boils on which no amount of products has any effect.
So throw into this self-obsessed moment in life the need to go to college every morning, sit exams in subjects you don’t understand and choose a career and, well, life must be an overwhelming series of tortuous circumstances that will only get better with age. So you’re best submitting to it. But teens don’t submit to anything and everything is a fight, a heroic struggle against the dark forces of authority, an act of noble defiance against discipline, all backed by a soundtrack of skateboards, death metal and steeky beats.
Except in the kitchen of Ian Thompson, that is. Thompson is one of the catering lecturers at South Eastern Regional College whose NVQ Level 2 students open a proper restaurant three times a week (Tuesday lunchtime and evening and Thursday evening) to the Lisburn general public.
Thompson’s kitchen is a steel and white-tiled temple of clinical calm and precise methods. Here, teenagers appear on time, do what they’re told, and learn a trade that will provide them with skills they will be able to use all over the world.
The Lisburn city centre college campus is state-of-the-art modern. The Linen Room restaurant has a strong appeal to locals for three reasons. It’s handy, it’s cheap and, judging by the lunch I had there, it’s good.
In fact, it’s very good. The restaurant sits on the top floor of the SERC building in what must be one of the most attractive locations in the city. With a spacious balcony, wide enough to accommodate a few full-size tables and chairs, and big windows, the Linen Room would probably work well if it were able to open every day.
If that were the case, Ian Thompson would have to lower the ambitious menus and do something simpler because what we had — I was joined by one of Lisburn’s most respected business leaders and farmer, Tom McClelland — was distinctly posh.
The menu itself doesn’t overstretch itself. There are ten choices including starters, mains and desserts. This is the right approach on two fronts: it makes life easier for the time-pressed luncher, and it means plenty of repetition in the kitchen, an old-fashioned but effective way of learning.
If the choice is modest, the content is not short of ambition. It takes nerve to offer up paupiettes of plaice with chive cream, hot smoked jasmine and green tea salmon with wilted baby gem lettuce finished off with vanilla rice pudding with warm lemon and almond madeleines when you’re not just cooking but teaching a posse of teenagers how to cook too.
As it happens, we both had the paupiettes, generous little rolls of plaice fillet stuffed with the cheese and chives. Light and full of bright sea-breeziness, they were an absolute steal at £2.
The salmon had already sold out so instead a Hungarian-style chicken sauté with steamed potatoes and a stir fry of beef and vegetables in oyster sauce with noodles were ordered and promptly delivered. The huge portions are a clever way of covering up any inconsistencies in quality. Yet the value for money based on quality alone was outstanding. The poultry dish consisted of half a bird with a tangy, tomatoey sauce with paprika — a kind of east European chicken chasseur. Carefully cooked, it was tender and moist and decently flavoured.
Unfortunately, the potatoes had been left to sit slightly too long and had started to harden on the outside.
The stir fry was, on the other hand, wok-fresh and equally vast in proportion. Generous pieces of tender beef dominated the dish, nicely balanced by shards of peppers, scallions and carrots on a base of just-right noodles.
A rice pudding for Tom was greeted like a return to school days; better even, as he thought it was far better than he could ever remember. It was to do with the strength of the vanilla, he said. Almond and lemon madeleines to accompany a rice pudding might be a considered as carb overkill, but what the hell. They were all delightful.
The steamed lemon sponge pudding with lemon curd ice cream was very well executed — light, fluffy and gently bittersweet.
The other dishes included cream of chicken soup with melba toast, lamb meatballs with fresh pasta and as side orders there were catering college favourites — duchesse potatoes (mashed spuds with egg, shaped and grilled) and cauliflower and broccoli mornay. The mornay sauce was spot on and there was enough texture in the vegetables to indicate great care had been taken here too.
With this level of quality displayed by the students — Ian Thompson was keen to pass the credit on to his young ones — we should rest assured that the future of Ulster restaurant kitchens is in safe hands. Try it yourself: every Tuesday lunchtime or gourmet evening the same day and Thursday for dinner, 5.30 to 7pm.
Paupiettes x 2 £4
Stir fry £3
Rice pudding £2
Lemon sponge £2