On an almost balmy summer evening, we make the Dart trip from the city centre to Malahide to visit Old Street, a recent addition to the town's eating options. The journey takes just over half an hour and feels like an adventure, which is silly. I've been meaning to make the trip for months but somehow kept putting it off. Why? Because I know and like Denise McBrien, the general manager, who used to run front of house at Pichet, and feared that I wasn't going to enjoy this suburban restaurant. I thought that it was going to be boring, and that I'd still have to write about it and I wouldn't know what to say. (I know, first world problems.)
o I'm delighted - and relieved - to report that Old Street is anything but boring, and that the food is both interesting and excellent.
The restaurant pulls off a difficult feat, in that it manages to have broad appeal without succumbing to blandness.
On a Friday evening, there's a happy multi-generational buzz about the place -groups of friends, families, a few couples, a 30th birthday party.
I know from the website that Old Street is owned by a local couple, Mark and Adriana Fitzpatrick, who have no previous experience in the restaurant business. Six years ago, they bought two adjoining cottages - one single storey and one double, which are among the oldest buildings in the village, and less than five minutes' walk from the station.
The Fitzpatricks hired local architect, Gareth Maguire, to secure planning, and work with them on the design and finishes. The restoration took two years and Old Street opened on the ground and first floors in April. It's stylish and modern with plenty of exposed brick and nice architectural touches at every turn. (A basement wine bar will be finished before the end of the year.) They also hired Denise, who has over 20 years' experience working in the restaurant business, as general manager. There's an attention to detail in the interiors, uniforms and table settings that tells you this is a professional operation from the moment you step across the threshold.
The Glenilen butter comes on cute wooden paddles, the salt in stone cellars, the pottery and candle-holders are from Arran Street East, the napkins are grey linen. The staff wear jeans and T-shirts under their smart aprons. The ambience is relaxed rather than formal; the food falls into the 'casual fine-dining' category that we all want these days.
We start with a salad of chargrilled asparagus with prosciutto, which comes with a richly savoury St Tola custard, peaches, walnuts and black truffle, truly a perfect summer dish. Scallops sit well with smoked anchovy mayonnaise, pickled anchovy, apple, celery and chive purée, the elements distinct yet speaking to one another in harmony.
Beef tartare, with shimeji mushroom, avocado and toasted croutons surprises with its spiciness but is seriously tasty, far better than the version of the dish that I ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sicily the previous week. Good beef (from Ballyhenry Organic Farm in Co Wicklow) makes all the difference, and the spicing is key.
Smart chefs know and understand that there is a demand for dishes that put vegetables front and centre, and that beetroot and goat's cheese just doesn't cut it any more, no matter how good the ingredients. We can all do that at home. Here, head chef Fergus Caffrey (formerly of Amuse and Dax), has created a vegetarian dish of smoked polenta, braised leek, brown butter cauliflower, charred sweet corn, and sweet corn purée that is the equal in flavour terms of any meat dish. It's fabulous.
Cod with smoked ham hock, cockles, pea, kale and champ mash is perfectly cooked and a well-balanced dish, with a rustic sensibility. Unusually, beef striploin is cooked sous-vide rather than on the griddle, and comes medium as standard. It's not quite as tender as we expected, given the cooking method, but there is no shortage of flavour to the meat. It's served with seasonal Jersey Royals, confit garlic, girolles and kale. Fries could be more crisp, green beans with Caesar dressing are a guaranteed way of getting reluctant vegetable eaters to consume more greens.
To finish, a pudding called Old Street Cinema - described as caramel cremeux, candied popcorn, cola jelly, mixed nut crumble and vanilla ice cream - is an absolute winner. The creation of sous chef, Chris Fullam (formerly of Amuse and The Greenhouse and a finalist in last year's Euro-Toques Young Chef competition), he says the dish is inspired by childhood memories of the cinema. The snacks must have been a lot better where he grew up than they ever were at the Forum in Dun Laoghaire. Cheeses - a selection of Coolattin, Banagher Bold, Young Buck Blue, Brie de Meaux, and Milleens, with home-made crackers and chutney, are in fine fettle.
With a bottle of Blauburgunder Kellerei Kaltern 2015 (13pc) (€46) - an organic pinot noir from the German-speaking Alto Adige in northern Italy that is elegant and complex, water and a few soft drinks, our bill for three came to €194.50 plus tip.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Lunch is available Wednesday to Saturday, with both a la carte and set menus. From the former, you could try chargrilled flatbread with crab in chive mayonnaise for €15. The set menu is €24/€29 for two/three courses.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Scallops to start, the striploin for mains, a couple of sides, dessert and cheese will set you back €126 for two before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
Old Street is everything that you could want in a neighbourhood restaurant.
THE LOW POINT
That it's not in my neighbourhood.