Last weekend was full of revelations. On Saturday I went to Armagh, where I grew up, and visited two pubs with restaurants: O’Toole’s and Sheils’s.
Charming, inviting, snug and embracing, both these country bars are long-established favourites with Armagh people. I am ashamed to say I had never set foot in either one and am baffled as to why I knew nothing about them until now. I was on a voyage of discovery, being guided by the brother and family consiglieri, Austen, and promised I’d go back for lunch or dinner very soon.
It’s always a mystery how these beautiful but very isolated places survive when the laws of commerce require a business to be in a busy place.
Also isolated but closer to Belfast is the Old Schoolhouse, a few miles outside Comber, close to the north western shores of Strangford Lough.
The Old Schoolhouse has been trading on a strong reputation for years, offering good food and accommodation in an attractive rural setting. Yet when it comes to country places, city folk can’t be bothered with the burden of transport logistics, so instead we stick to places closer to home.
Will Brown has taken over from where his parents left off and the emphasis on the Old Schoolhouse brand is shifting from the excellence of the accommodation to the food. Brown has an impressive pedigree: he worked in London from the age of 17 in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle before moving on to Gordon Ramsay‘s Maze via a number of other Michelin-starred restaurants, including the venerable Cayenne.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that he has built such a name for himself since he came back to the Old Schoolhouse. But he’s got some work to do beyond the kitchen. The dining room is austere, dark, poorly lit and fails to provide that rustic, country comfort and charm that, judging by the wooden floors, the olde worlde furniture and the funny little lampshades, is the aim. The problem is that the unprepossessing, high-ceilinged classroom with big windows does not lend itself easily to prettification.
Thankfully, this is all about to change. A modernisation plan is currently under discussion and all that remains now is whether it will be done before or after Christmas.
Whenever it does happen, it couldn’t be soon enough because Will Brown’s food is worth the journey. This is not a cutting edge culinary experience, but nor is it conventional or traditional. The advisor and I, in a very rare Saturday night to call our own, were able to get a table for two, and soon discovered just how good the food can be in the Old Schoolhouse. A tasting menu of seven courses for £55 seemed reasonable and put an end to the debates we were having over the content of the a la carte menu. So we just sat back and let it happen.
A tasting menu is a stab in the dark in many ways. Not unlike the ‘banquet menus’ you see in Chinese restaurants, the idea is off-putting on the one hand because there may be items you won’t like. On the other, the entire choice process, the confusion, the what-ifs, is removed from you. And what you have instead is a stress-free night ahead.
And so it was. Starting with breads, which were unimpressive little white crusty rolls with a bit of chilli on one and sesame seeds on the other, things soon perked up with the arrival of the Lissara duck foie gras. The depth of flavour of the pâté, the lingering aftertaste and the smooth texture were memorable. Backing up the pate was a well-judged Sauterne jelly, some apple and raisin chutney and a roundel of toasted brioche. There was also a tiny dollop of gingerbread sauce that provided another little taste dimension. We were very happy — although, as I was driving, I was not quite as happy as the advisor, whose Chablis was working its magic.
A fillet of mackerel followed and provided a completely new chapter to the meal. Now the crispiness of the skin, the salty flavour of the sea and the tang of the grey-white meat played in counterbalance to the pâté. This and the accompanying shrimp, mussels, chorizo, peas and beans were another small triumph. The beans were slightly on the crunchy side, but the adviser said that was all the better for dealing with the oily mackerel.
The wild salmon and its top-class linguini, courgette and pea and asparagus emulsion was on a similar par in quality and excitement. The Dexter beef fillet with beef cheek and oxtail provided a step in other directions.
These were wonderful dishes and worked like the tracks on a good album. They were all distinctive and made the entire meal something memorable.
The chocolate tart, like the breads at the start, were best forgotten — they, surprisingly, offered no flavour whatsoever. But we were that delighted with everything in between, it didn’t matter.
With cooking like this, Will Brown deserves to have it served in a fitting and deserving a dining room designed with a bit of flair, brightness and glamour. As soon as the workmen have left, we’ll be back.
Tasting menu x 2 £110
Chablis glass x 2 £11
Tempranillo glass £4.50
Monbazillac glass £5
Tawny port glass £5
100 Ballydrain Road, Comber BT23 6EA
Tel: 028 9754 1182.