The Old Schoolhouse Inn – Comber
It’s said ‘Fortune favours the Brave’. Individuals that show genuine strength of character, desire to succeed and a willingness to undertake new beginnings, ultimately become the people we end up reading about in glossy magazines because of their enviable success. One person who has displayed such conviction is an American gentleman by the name of Fred Deluca, a name you won’t recognise but whose story is one of true note. Whilst studying for a Medical Degree at College in Connecticut during the 1960’s, Fred was finding it difficult to pay his tuition fees and borrowed $1,000 dollars from a friend to help ease his situation. However, instead of buying books, he put his neck on the line and invested the borrowed money into an on campus sandwich shop. A risk, but one which in time began to not only help him pay his way through University, but also the ability to prosper and open a second shop. The loan from the loyal friend was duly repaid and a degree from University obtained, but Deluca now had the bug and began to open Sandwich shop after shop, inviting his friend to enter into partnership and concentrate their combined efforts and energy. They branded their growing business, the now world recognisable ‘Subway’ and in the 2000’s became the fastest growing food franchise on Earth, in the process making Deluca a billionaire. A genuine success story, resulting in vast fortunes, born out of one very brave step!
It’s a bold move for any Chef who has worked away to return home to Ireland and decide to go it alone. It takes a willingness to undertake new beginnings, strength of character and belief that the new skills and techniques learned will be enough to impress and make the venture a success. When those skills have been sharpened in some of London’s finest, like The Square and The Glass House and the trip home takes you to the sleepy shores of Strangford Lough – it also takes a fair amount of bravery. That’s exactly what Chef Will Brown has done. The 25 year old, Northern Irish native has returned home to become Chef / Proprietor of a long standing family run business and has serious plans to shake up the direction of the food on offer. So last week The Restaurant Pimp’s endless food journey led him to somewhat of an unknown entity in the heart of beautiful Co Down, to The Old School House Inn, Comber.
As we walked across the elevated car park of The Old Schoolhouse Inn, it gave us great perspective as to the scale of the set up. To the right sits a red brick accommodation building, housing 12 very well decorated rooms. Across the courtyard is another red brick building which houses the restaurant. On entering we walked down a long hall passing a piano and vintage looking globe. Opening the restaurant doors and popping our head inside we were met by a smartly dressed gentleman who welcomed us and invited us in. We were directed to a candle lit table, topped in white linen. Comfortably seated we had our first good look at The Old Schoolhouse Inn. The dining room is split into two good size areas and could easily seat 80+ covers. The decor is definitely a throw back to the 1980’s with carpeted floors, net curtains and cloth lamp shades all on show – but it’s not dated in a tacky sense, it still holds lots of character and charm. It’s a comfortable space and I quite liked it. The manager then returned with a single sheet menu offering a la carte options of 5 starters and 5 mains. So with orders placed we sat back, happily awaiting the delights which lay ahead.
Breads & Butter
Amuse: Raviolo of Wild Mushroom
The Old Schoolhouse Inn meal began with the arrival of some freshly baked breads served invitingly on a wooden paddle board. The first a plain with Poppy Seed and the second a fragrant Olive bread, both still oven warm and easily tore apart in the hand. The olive offering was my favourite, though it must be said the butter on the board was rock hard having just left the fridge and almost impossible to spread. Whilst enjoying the breads our server returned with an amuse bouche of Raviolo of Wild Mushroom, presented in a glass oval dish with the raviolo topped with foam and a purple flower. The pasta was cooked to perfection and when pierced open released an earthy smell from the mushrooms. It was a perfect amuse visually and in terms of size, though the offering was let down badly by the bed of spinach it was perched upon. It lacked seasoning and unfortunately the poorly seasoned spinach was the lasting flavour on the palate. Very small issues with the butter and spinach that I feel I had to mention, because what followed after was nothing short of outstanding!
Chicken: Pressed Chicken Terrine with tomato, potato, egg, green bean, olive cheeks, tomato jelly, mayonnaise
Salmon: Walter’s smoked Salmon with potato pancake, pickled golden beetroot and horseradish foam
For my starter I opted for Chicken: Pressed Chicken Terrine with tomato, potato, egg, green bean, olive cheeks, tomato jelly, mayonnaise. It arrived at the table served on a dark slate, showcasing a perfectly assembled array of vibrant eye catching colours, centred by a blue and white flower. It looked fantastic! The flavours were every bit as vibrant as the colours. No issues with the seasoning of the delicate slab of terrine, perfectly balancing the sweet chicken and vegetables. The small cubes of tomato jelly were packed with intense sweetness counteracted wonderfully by the black olives. The small balls of potato added great texture alongside the still runny quail’s eggs. It was an attractive, fresh, flavoursome starter which I adored. Whilst enjoying my delicious starter my attention was drawn by the amazing aroma coming from Lady P’s starter of Salmon: Walter’s smoked Salmon with potato pancake, pickled golden beetroot and horseradish foam. It was presented in a deep glass bowl, looking and smelling amazing. Lady P really enjoyed the texture of the potato pancake and the flavour of the warm salmon and sweet beetroot. Really clean, fresh flavours that she is still talking about days after! Great start!!!
Turbot: Pot roasted Turbot, scallop mousse, mussels, cockles, linguini, courgette puree, butter emulsion
Pork: Gloucestershire old spot Pork belly, black pudding, apple puree, savoy cabbage, creamed potato and roasting juices
My main course was the recommended Turbot: Pot roasted Turbot, scallop mousse, mussels, cockles, linguini, courgette puree, butter emulsion. Served on a black slate, it had instant whaow factor not only in terms of the way each element was perfectly presented but also from its aroma – it smelt superb. Where do I start with the flavours, the sweet scallop mousse wrapped in ribbons of cucumber was a triumph in itself contrasting perfectly with the salty cockles and mussels. The deliciously tender Turbot and melt in the mouth linguini left a delicate hint of lemon in the mouth cutting through the almost nutty butter emulsion. The intense, earthy rich courgette puree delivered an enjoyable lasting flavour that I loved. Each mouthful was a genuine delight and Lady P had to beg me not to lick the slate. This Turbot dish delivered by Will Brown was the tastiest dish I have ever had, in any restaurant, truly sublime! People will one day travel for this dish, mark my words!!!
Lady P went with Pork: Gloucestershire old spot Pork belly, black pudding, apple puree, savoy cabbage, creamed potato and roasting juices served simply on a white plate with a generous helping of pork belly sat on top of diced cabbage and carrot. It was accompanied by a bold swoosh of apple puree. She said the crackling was fantastic, the way every pork belly should be cooked, just enough crunchy bite to cover the incredibly tender meat. The crumbly black pudding added a real richness to the dish and a side helping of potato was smooth and creamy – a dish full of delicious flavours, but even she left jealous of the fact she hadn’t opted for the brilliant Turbot.
Cheese Cake: Vanilla and Ricotta cheesecake, butternut squash ice cream, pistachio biscuit, espresso fluid gel, cherries
Chocolate: Chocolate and olive oil delice with honeycomb, strawberry sorbet, pear jelly, strawberry marshmallow, popping candy
I finished my meal with Cheese Cake: Vanilla and Ricotta cheesecake, butternut squash ice cream, pistachio biscuit, espresso fluid gel, cherries. Like all of the dishes on show, it was beautifully presented, deconstructed and very appealing. The Vanilla and ricotta was well balanced and not too sweet, perfect with the butternut squash ice cream, which was just on the sweet side of savoury – the deconstruction was all brought together by the intense little dots of espresso fluid gel. Such an explosion of powerful rich sweetness – I had never seen or tasted the gel before and it was very impressive. The biscuit was a mix of burnt egg white and butter, great texture and so incredibly moreish. A fine dessert. Lady P rounded the evening off with Chocolate: Chocolate and olive oil delice with honeycomb, strawberry sorbet, pear jelly, strawberry marshmallow, popping candy. It could easily be argued that it was the most visually stunning dish of the evening, just check out the picture. Lady P didn’t go into too much detail on the flavours she experienced, however I could tell by the smile on her face that had I not been her only lift home on that particular evening, she may have divorced me and married the pastry Chef!!! – A joyous end to an amazing meal.
The service on the evening was extremely relaxed and, as is always the case with country restaurants, full of conversation and interaction. There was only one other table occupied during our visit, so service was also prompt and attentive. We discovered through chatting with the waiting staff that a new, highly experienced front of house manager was due to start the following week and the existing wine list was being replaced. This is no doubt to fit in with the new vision Will Brown has for The Old Schoolhouse Inn – it’ll help replicate and ensure the class, which oozes from the kitchen, flows through the entire restaurant. I’ll be interested to see how much impact the imminent changes make on my next visit.
I’ll be the first to admit that my expectations of The Old Schoolhouse Inn were smashed to smithereens! In a very, very good way!!! Yes you could argue that the decor is stuck in a time warp and could do with freshening up – but it still has charm and character that so many shiny chrome and perceived chic, modern restaurants lack. Its main selling point and attraction is undoubtedly the food on the plate. Without sounding a little over excited, it’s quite spectacular. The impressive presentation, balance of flavours and raw creativity delivered by Will Brown and Chef Tony Dodd’s, ranks alongside any meal I have eaten on this island. Throw into the mix the fact the kitchen has only been in operation for 3 weeks and is in the process of recruiting quality additions, its only going to progress in one direction. The Old Schoolhouse Inn is the real deal folks and if it can sustain this level of consistency when the food lovers of NI start flooding through its doors and Will Brown stays focussed, demonstrating enough bravery, you may even hear whispers of that elusive Michelin star coming home to rest! After all, ‘Fortune favours the Brave’.
Would I Pimp this Restaurant???
This is a restaurant producing an elegant style of food and bursting with so much genuine potential, it really excites me!
The skill, flair, invention and confidence delivered on every dish during our visit, already places it alongside the very best of what Northern Ireland has to offer.
If you are a food lover and want to explore creative cuisine, a trip to The Old Schoolhouse Inn is an absolute must!!!
This will be my last post for a few months and what a meal to go out on – The Old Schoolhouse Inn, one to watch out for in 2012.