Were I to make a list of the qualities I demand from my ‘dining companion’ it would be a very short one. A healthy appetite and, ideally, a willingness to push the frontiers would do. I still remember with horror the night I was dining with A Famous Person who, halfway through the meal turned round to me, saying “All this stuff is rather wasted on me; I only eat to stay alive.” I do like to take someone with an appreciation of décor, to cover up my deficiencies in this department – if the grub is fantastic (or terrible) I maybe wouldn’t notice whether the chairs are black leather or gold velour.
Reviewers differ in ways of referring to their ‘co-pilots’. Some opt for initials, leaving the reader to ponder whether ‘SG’, let’s say, is Serge Gainsbourg or Sam Goldwyn. Others leave clues – ‘depressing singer-songwriter’ or ‘accident-prone goalkeeper’. My own preference is to cloak my guest in a pseudonym you’ll have noticed Bangles, Sibella, Petite Chef, etc cropping up. It’s not often that I break someone’s cover but this week I’m going to reveal that my guest ‘KD’ is the foodie lady behind The Cookbook Club, one of the most inventive and enjoyable innovations to hit the Irish dining scene in 2010 (check it out on www.the cookbookclub.ie, I’ll say no more).
Though the bar at The Schoolhouse was heaving, the restaurant was quiet. I was not surprised. There is value in it for a business prepared to shout about what it doing yet noise of the recent changes at the Northumberland Road hotel was so low key it would need a basso profondo to sing it. The cooking was now in the hands of the talented Olivier Quenet of La Maison in Castlemarket, formerly responsible for the stylish pub fare at Vaughan’s of Terenure.
I do like the room, although with its high ceiling it’s difficult to cosy up. There’s one duff table by the door – avoid if possible, as we did. Tables are a decent size, each with its own space. Chairs are comfortable. Glassware and table linen are of excellent quality and the waiting staff, from the off, proved civil and professional. We might have guessed, but didn’t until we were handed the menu, that this was going to be ‘fine dining’. I’m sure our intake of breath was audible as we realised there was no table d’hote nor ‘two for twenty-five’ special.
Still, the menu, in French with English translations, winked and waved like a siren. Every supplier was name-checked, viz: “Salade de noix de St. Jacques du petit bateau de John O’Donnell (Balbriggan)” which is what I ordered for my starter. Five plump, sweet, caramelized scallops with a generous amount of cauliflower puree, a scattering of crisp salad and a nicely restrained hazelnut vinaigrette. KD’s butternut squash soup, perked up with a discernible trace of nutmeg was another winner.
My braised wild partridge main course came with a lovely jus (gravy not emulsion) and, a nice touch this, the trimmings arrived on foot of the main plate, made into a warm salad. The bird itself was perfectly cooked, tender and succulent, on a bed of chicory a vegetable rarely seen these days. The trademark slight bitterness pointed up the feathered game a treat. KD had what would have been my second choice the ‘Cote de porc Saddleback organique’ from Coolanowle House in Carlow. Yes, there was a square of the commonplace belly. There was also a large thick-cut chop and some melt-in-the mouth black pudding made from the same breed. Truly, pork as good as it gets.
We selected a simple Chardonnay from the Pay’s d’Oc to accompany the starters. Then a bottle of Cahors red (thankfully, in the modern style of Cahors, not the savage, colour of school ink tipple) which complemented the robust flavours. There’s a good deal worth drinking on this savvy list but much is arcane, so average punters won’t find too many of their regular stand-bys. As with the food, the restaurant’s wine suppliers are top-notch and even at lower levels (a relative term since the base bottle is €24), there’s no crap. Relax and put your fate in the hands of the excellent young French sommelier would be my advice.
To finish we split a dessert – a wonderful adult version of one of those kids’ ice creamy treats, with pear, caramel, fresh yoghurt and good vanilla ice cream – and cheese, a selection from seven or eight Irish cheeses all in prime condition.
We found we had spent €141, ex-service. Knock off the two glasses of white and that’s €125. Seems maybe expensive but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve spent €100 on 2 x 3 courses and a bottle of humdrum wine and come away feeling robbed. From the service to the sparkling glassware to the even more sparkling food, at the Schoolhouse everything was top notch. I really want things to work out for these guys. Olivier Quenet is an exemplary chef and a decent skin. Creating a fine dining establishment in the current climate seems a brave and risky move. What’s more, fine dining in the proper sense needs more bodies to service the customer than were in evidence the night we were there. I’d like to think they will be able to gear up their game when they get busy, as I fervently hope they will.
The Schoolhouse, 2-8 Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 tel: 01 6675014