I know I've said it before, but I'm still amazed at how this island has shrunk thanks to the new motorways. Many years ago, I travelled the country with Italian cattle buyers and I learned to plan our trips allowing, say, seven hours to Cork from Dublin, or nine to the tip of Kerry.
The result of this was a feeling that Ireland was very large indeed – a trip from Cork to Donegal by car would have had you packing an overnight case. But today, it feels quite small. Two hours gets you from Dublin's M50 to the roundabout just outside Galway. Cork is now easily accessible, as is the north.
Last year, I was doing a radio play for BBC Belfast and I allowed myself four hours from Annamoe to get there. Two-and-a-half hours later, I was parked in Belfast and twiddling my thumbs.
This shrinking of the island means that places I once would perhaps have dismissed as too far away are now within easy reach.
This week is a perfect example. I'd arranged to meet Sophie Gorman, Arts Editor at the 'Irish Independent', in Ringsend and our plan was to go to The Eastern Seaboard in Drogheda. It's a place I've been hearing a lot about, and all the reports coming to me were more than favourable.
From meeting Sophie to arriving in Drogheda took much less than an hour, which meant we got there with time to spare before our booking. Sophie suggested we take a look in Quintessential Wines on the Dublin Road, so we spent a happy half hour browsing through a broad collection of wines, unique to Quintessential.
With a couple of bottles bought for her cellar, it was off to eat. The Eastern Seaboard is just off the Dublin Road, set in what, at first glance, looks like a cross between a housing estate and a business park. The restaurant itself is surrounded by a large car park.
Inside it's a large space, but it's been well divided. What you notice at once are some great interior-design features: for example, the back wall of the bar has a display of vintage decanters, which make a fine feature.
Old surveyors' tripods make lampstands, a buffalo head peers out from a wall and a large map of Ireland repays a close inspection.
Because Sophie had been here before, she was able to guide me through the menu. There's a lot on it, and there's a lot of seafood, which I was delighted to find.
The menu is divided into sections: appetisers, small plates, plates to share and main courses. Any one of the appetisers would have suited me well – crab cakes, scallops, crab claws, mussels, mackerel paté, a pail of shrimp or a pail of calamari.
In the end, we ordered a butcher's board to share and a pail of calamari as our starters. Then Sophie chose the sea trout, which was the fish of the day, and I chose the smoked haddock.
There's a decent wine list that's fairly priced and, from it, we chose the Schlumberger Pinot Blanc from Alsace at €28, a beautifully crisp, clean white with a fine, lingering finish – just right for our fish dishes.
The starters were nicely presented: the butcher's board served on a wooden bread board on which we got delicious pork rillettes, black pudding, a chorizo ballotine and Parma ham, served with toasted sourdough bread. That was certainly enough for two, but we also had the pail of calamari, which was made up of very small and very tender calamari rings, served with a lime mayonnaise.
Nothing complicated here, just simple, good food. It's also carefully sourced – there's a whole page on the menu giving you the provenance of all the food.
Our main courses were every bit as good as our starters. Sophie's sea trout was simply done; pan-fried and perfectly cooked. I had two pieces of battered smoked haddock, deep-fried to exactly the golden colour I like to see. Two side dishes are included in the price of the main course, and we both chose a bowl of salad and a bowl of spring greens to accompany our fish.
There is a lovely atmosphere in the Eastern Seaboard, in part created by the excellent service, in part by the comfortable and well-designed interior. It lulls you into a sense of well-being, and before we knew it, we were ordering desserts – a coffee jelly for Sophie and a bread and butter pudding for me. Like the other dishes we'd had, these two were well made, nicely served and very good to eat.
This place hits a very happy note with its food. There's nothing cheffy, nothing over-elaborate. Instead, what you get are good-quality raw ingredients cooked by someone who knows what they're doing, and served simply. That's a pretty good combination, and I found myself agreeing with Sophie when she said, "If this place was in Dublin, I'd be eating here a lot. I already do, and it's in Drogheda".
I got the bill and discovered that it's also very good value. Our bill for three courses each, plus a €28 bottle of wine, came to €87.50. No wonder the place was packed. If you fancy a trip to Drogheda to eat here, my advice is to book – even mid-week.
ON A BUDGET
The butcher’s board is for sharing — there’s plenty on it for two. It’s good value at ¤9, as was the smoked haddock at €13.25.
ON A BLOWOUT
Start with the pan-fried scallops with lardo (a delicious combination) at €10, then go for a steak, the only main course to cost more than €20. A 10oz rib-eye costs €25.50.
The consistent high quality of the food.
A pretty poor espresso.