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RESTAURANT REVIEW – Olivier’s at The Schoolhouse

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.

RATING

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience **

Overall ****

The Schoolhouse, 2-8 Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 tel: 01 6675014

Cooking The Blues

Health, history, novelty – but what do they taste like? Ernie Whalley cooks the Blues

Many of the original potatoes first introduced to Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries have long since disappeared. Today, a handful of commercial varieties remain. However the Keogh family, who have farmed in North County Dublin for the past 200 years have re-introduced some of these rare and ancient varieties by developing seed from old agricultural archives. Each Heritage (as they term them) variety has an original colour, shape and taste – Blue potatoes, which were first grown here in the 1900’s, have a dramatic dark purple skin and the flesh within is deep blue, a colour it retains after cooking. Tom Keogh, from Peter Keogh and Sons reckons “The novelty factor of cooking blue mash or blue chips will raise many eyebrows at the dinner table. It is also a great way to get young children interested in eating potatoes.”

Recently, I received a sample box. I’ve come late to these violet and indigo wonders; it seems every food writer around has already been extolling their virtues. What virtues? The cynic might say “Well, they’re purple, aren’t they? So what?” But, bear with me…

Cook these potatoes and your guests will be eating a slice, or maybe a chip of history. Purple/blue potatoes have been linked to the Incas. Some say they were reserved for the king. People have speculated that the original potatoes brought back to Europe by (maybe) Columbus or (was it?) Sir Walter Raleigh were of this hue. I can just envisage the conversation:-

Elizabeth I: For godsakes, Walt. These things clash with my regal attire. Can’t you find some that tone with my new French robe? Green, yellow or something?

Raleigh: I can probably get white, your majesty.

Elizabeth: Do it, so. Begone.

(six months later)

Raleigh (bowing low, while doffing his hat with a flourish): Behold, your majesty. The white potato.

Elizabeth: Fool. These tubers are not white. They are a sort of muddy brown, with scab and big holes wherein some clumsy oaf has stuck a pitchfork. (To Burleigh, her chancellor, conveniently standing by at the head of a posse of tough looking dudes with shiny helmets and big spears) Seize him! Off with his head!!!

But, seriously, how do the purple spuds stand up to testing?

Well, they are not of the “Rush Queens, Pure Balls of Flour” ilk. Texturally, the purple spuds are, if not quite ‘waxy’, grainy or mealy, more like. ‘Compressed porridge’ was what came to mind when I baked them in their jackets. Roosters have nothing to fear. Roasted, they don’t have a deal of flavour – nothing to wean me off the Golden Wonder or the Kerr’s Pink, both of them fluffy within and crisp-crusted without. They make decent chips – with the caveat that the purple/blue hues metamorphose to mottled brown and navy. havern’t tried mashing them yet.

Novelty value apart, there is one very good reason for eating blue spuds. The strong blue colour is the same anthocyanin that gives blueberries, blackberries and aubergines their distinctive tints, a powerful antioxidant which protects cells from damage and so may inhibit certain cancers, heart disease and muscular degeneration.

So far as aesthetics go, perhaps the most sympathetic deployment would be as potato salad, cutting the boiled or steamed tubers into wedges and mixing with small, whole white salad potatoes (varieties like Charlotte or Nicola) would make for an appealing contrast in shape and texture. Some chopped scallions and a bulb of raw fennel would add bite and crunch, alternatively a handful of blanched mange tout. Potential for a “Wow!” factor at a dinner party here.

Currently my favourite salad dressing – and it works as well for potato as for green salad – is a 6:1 blend of good extra virgin olive oil and WHITE balsamic vinegar, with a scattering of chopped chives and thyme leaves, a little salt and a good grind of fresh black pepper. Of the white balsamicos the Belazzu brand is especially piquant (I get mine in Greenacres of Wexford but other good delis stock it). Another potato salad dressing I like is a 50/50 blend of homemade mayonnaise and Greek yoghurt.

Keogh’s Heritage Blue potatoes are now available exclusively in Superquinn stores nationwide from for a limited period, priced €2.99 for a 1kg box.