Perfect for a pit stop
Over the years, I've driven to Italy more than 40 times, sometimes going through the UK and sometimes through France. When you do a trip like this, which involves at least two overnight stays, you have a couple of ways to approach it. One way is to plan a route, make advance bookings and then try to hit your planned destination at the end of each day.
Alternatively, you can do what I always did, which was to drive until I was tired and then pull off the motorway into the nearest town. This latter approach has obvious drawbacks. You're in a town where you know nothing about the hotels or the restaurants. All you can do is judge by their outside appearance.
It's an imprecise science. Most of the time, though, we got it pretty much right. If you see a perfectly maintained exterior, there's a good chance that the interior will be equally well maintained.
I mention this because every time I drive out west, or come back from it, I notice Brown's Barn in Citywest. From the outside it looks to me like what used to be called a roadhouse in the UK, a place designed and intended for motorists to stop and eat. "One day," I told myself, "I'll give that Barn a go."
And so it came to pass: this week I arranged to meet Adam Hankin there. Inside we found what you'd expect – an old and very large barn that had been converted into a restaurant.
Sensitive restorations sometimes mean making forced choices; for example, there are cast-iron downpipes that carry the rain from the roof to the drains down the internal walls. I noticed this because a sudden downpour of biblical proportions brought more rain down a pipe near us than it could cope with, and rain water spilled into the room, giving the staff a mopping-up job.
I started with the wine list, which is very short but very well priced. Nearly all the listed wines are less than €20 and nearly half of them are less than €17.95, which is a price per bottle that I haven't seen for maybe 20 years. You can buy a Pinot Grigio for €16.95 or a Macon-Lugny for €20.95, both wines that usually sell for significantly more. But with two cars outside we needed to be sensible, so Adam ordered a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon at €5.50 and I had a glass of beer.
I always like to order a bottle of sparkling water when I eat, because I consider water an elemental part of a meal. It was only available in quarter bottles, which is always annoying. Can you imagine a wine list made up only of quarter bottles?
By selling a quarter bottle for €2.90, you end up paying €11.60 a litre, which is insane. Odd, because everything else on the menu was fairly priced.
Looking down the menu, it read pretty much as I would have suspected. You can think of it as a posh pub menu, since it has the pub standards, plus some fancier fare. Standards included Caesar salad, seafood chowder, chicken wings, garlic mushrooms and paté.
The main courses were all less than €15 and included chicken breast, chicken stir-fry, tandoori salmon, scampi, chicken curry, and fish and chips. There were also separate sections for burgers and pizzas, and these too were very well priced; the burgers all €12.95 and 12in pizzas ranging from €11.95 to €13.95.
You can see from the dishes that I've listed that Brown's Barn is not chasing a gourmet market, rather it's producing simple dishes that are well liked, and at prices that make the city centre look expensive.
I've said it before, but it's undoubtedly true that Irish men love their steaks. Any restaurant, no matter what kind, cannot survive if steak is not on the menu. From the restaurateur's point of view, that's good – steak isn't hard to cook. The only kind of criticism you're likely to get is along the lines of, "I asked for my steak well done and this is medium".
You can avoid even that basic level of criticism by giving your customer a hot stone and a raw steak. The customer is now responsible for the cooking time. Complaints become almost impossible. Almost, because the meat needs to be of very good quality.
Adam had his hot stone and a 10oz sirloin, which really was a fine piece of meat – well-hung and finely marbled. It came accompanied by chips, fried onions, mushrooms and pepper sauce in a ramekin.
I had the roast pork loin, the dish of the day, which came as four generous slices sitting on a bed of mash. I often choose roast pork as a test of a kitchen, since it's so easy to end up with dry, hard-to-eat slices of pork. Not so this time – the pork was still moist and tender, although there was just a bit too much of it for me on my plate.
Now, I can't say that either of dishes were in any way exceptional, but they were competent and generously portioned. Going back to the roadhouse analysis, Brown's Barn serves exactly the sort of food that you'd be happy to eat on a break from a journey. It's simple, tasty and very good value.
We finished with a cheesecake at €4.80, again decently made and tasty, and a couple of espressos. This brought the bill to €61.65, definitely at the lower end of the price range for dinner.