No matter what time of the year it is in Ireland, there is always a place for roaring fireplaces, creaking floorboards underneath thick carpets and ruddy-cheeked men and women in crisp white shirts and burgundy aprons carrying big trays of drink.
The Old Inn at Crawfordsburn does all of the above comfortably and in an unhurried, attentive manner. I have no idea why it has taken the advisor and me more than 12 years to visit the Old Inn, because the last time we were there, the food was memorable and the mood calming and therapeutic.
So when we turned up on a busy Sunday afternoon we weren’t surprised to rediscover the warmth and old fashioned hospitality were alive and well. The dining room was packed — the server said if we didn’t mind we could be accommodated in the bar. We didn’t mind at all, especially as seconds later we were taken to a charming booth by a street-fronting window.
A young server watched over us with benign enthusiasm, making sure we were settled in and, when asked, recommended a good South African rose which was £4 more than the one I’d looked at.
I generally boycott any wines which aren’t European and tend to knee-jerk a bit when they are outnumbered on a wine list by new world labels. This is largely down to middle-aged stupidity and stubbornness. My pro-European stance usually prompts derision from the youthful and internationalist advisor, so when I noticed the eyebrows arching — a sign to say the detonation countdown had begun — I wised up and went South African. And as usual she (and the server) was right. The Nederburg was excellent, big, round, at first sweet, then meaty and robust — totally unexpected and hugely satisfying, particularly for the driver, who only took a mouthful.
Food orders were soon taken and we made our call based on what we saw being delivered to other tables. The menu lists lots of choices which are a step or two above bar food, but among these are three items described as old favourites: crispy honey chilli chicken, char-grilled steak burger and “famous” fish and chips.
But first, there were the starters. A very successfully executed langoustine mornay (which was described modestly as prawns gratin), was generous in size and carefully cooked. The mornay sauce, wonderfully cheesy yet light as a soup, did not overwhelm the well-timed langoustines.
The advisor’s salt and chilli squid was text book. No hint of rubber in the squid which was tender and with decent flavour. The brittle batter blended and crumbled beautifully. The added shards of scallions and chilli and shreds of lettuce were welcome little fireworks for the tongue.
Things went a bit off-road then with the mains. While the crispy old chilli chicken favourite was a triumph of goujon over nugget — the chicken was fresh, moist and tasty — the same things could not be said of the steak burger. The advisor suggested the flavours in the burger hinted at some manipulation, possibly from Bisto or Oxo. Either way, she said, it tasted very like the bottom scrapings of a shepherd’s pie she had recently made.
This is not a bad thing, but it did warp the burger’s identity.
The “pork loin with fondant potatoes, carrots and celeriac and salty pork scratching” was transformed into a pork fillet with pak choi and cabbage and bacon bits, underneath a blanket of sweet plummy sauce. It wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t what was described in the menu and which I’d ordered. I asked the server about it and he came back to explain the chef had taken the original dish off the menu some weeks earlier and was serving this instead.
I’m not fussy, but still, the menu acts as guide. Some of us might be allergic to plummy sauces and avoid them, I suggested. There then ensued an odd but civilized argument as to the condition of communications between the kitchen and front of house and about what could and could not be done to repair the situation. Eventually he agreed to bring me a dish of fondant potatoes “at no extra cost”.
It was sort of laughable and I didn’t want to make a deal out of it, as we were all enjoying a family day out. After another small mishap involving desserts which were no longer available (it’s ok when one goes, but when two go and you only find out some time after the order went in, it’s irritating) we just asked for the bill.
The bill was reduced following a slightly disproportionate and unnecessary fuss, molehill-to-mountain-like, distinctly not prompted by me.
It had started well, it ended oddly. Just a bit more customer relations management training for one or two front of house people and the Old Inn will be great again.
Prawn gratin £7.95
Steak Burger £10.95
Chilli Chicken x 2 £20.50
Diet coke x 2 £4
Small Ballygowan £2
Large Ballygowan £4
Nederburg rose £18.50
Total . £75.40
15-25 Main Street, Crawfordsburn,
Bangor, County Down BT19 1JH
Tel: 0289185 3255