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Restaurant Review: The Old Schoolhouse, Church Rd., Swords, Dublin
Walking into a new restaurant and taking a table is a bit like meeting someone for the first time. You get your first impressions and from these you get a sense of what's in store. The lighting, the tables and how they're set, the menu, the way you're greeted – all these things combine to give you a gut feeling.
Almost at once you either feel comfortable, or you can feel on edge, with a faint nagging sensation that things aren't quite right.
I'd suggest to you that restaurants, like people, have personalities. There are people who make a good first impression; people who have a knack of making you feel at ease. Interacting with these kind of people is like using a well-oiled machine; there are no awkward lacunae, no tense moments, no hackles raised.
And just like some people, there are restaurants that make you feel uneasy, uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Sometimes these first impressions are borne out by the meal that follows, but sometimes you find your first impressions overturned by the rest of the evening. And again, just like people, restaurants can change.
Fifteen years ago, I reviewed The Old Schoolhouse in Swords and I felt then that the personality of the restaurant wasn't right.
The food was okay, but I felt there was a mismatch between the ambience and the menu.
This week, I went back there to meet Adam Hankin and as soon as I walked in, my first impressions were very different. I can't put my finger on it, but it just felt right.
The last time I was there, the restaurant had pretensions to gastronomy and didn't quite achieve it. This time the interior had changed completely. Downstairs is now given over entirely to the bar and bar food – the restaurant has moved upstairs.
The menu is also very different. It can best be described as a gastro-pub menu and it felt completely in keeping with the surroundings.
Because we were there on a Thursday night, we had a choice of menus. We had the à la carte, an early-bird menu offering three courses for €20, a table d'hôte offering three courses for €30 and the Thursday-night tapas menu, where you could have three tapas and a glass of wine for €20.
Our patient waitress had to come back to us three times before she could take our order, because there was so much to choose from.
After a lot of toing and froing, we both decided to choose from the à la carte.
Adam began with tiger prawns and then had the house signature dish; the 10oz rib-eye steak.
I started with the ham-hock terrine, and followed that with the braised lamb shank.
There's a surprisingly good wine list that's very fairly priced. There are wines listed for as little as €15.95 a bottle. But with both of us driving, it came down to a glass of Rioja for Adam and a bottle of Spanish Estrella beer for me.
Some good breads arrived at the table, clearly straight out of the oven, and we tucked into them till the starters arrived. Both of them were very well-presented. The prawns had been marinated in chilli, coriander and lime juice and were served on mini toasts.
The ham-hock terrine was served as a tian, surrounded by cubes of pickled pineapple, which were delicious. They were topped off with a fried quail's egg.
Both of these dishes were well above the standard you'd expect, even in a gastropub, so I found myself really looking forward to our main courses. When they arrived, we weren't disappointed.
Adam's rib-eye was large and tender, surrounded with golden roasties and was served with a ramekin of pepper sauce on the side. My lamb shank was literally "fall off the bone". A poke with my fork and the meat fell away from the bone – perfectly cooked and set on a bed of celeriac puree.
Normally two courses do me very well, but we were persuaded to take a look at the dessert menu, which was my undoing.
As soon as I saw bread and butter pudding, I was lost. I had to have it. The chocolate fondant had the same effect on Adam, and he ordered that.
You could argue that neither of these desserts are haute cuisine, and you may well be right, but they were both very good to eat.
The fondant was exactly as it should be, firm on the outside and runny and gooey on the inside. As for the bread and butter pudding, it was exactly the way I like it; firm rather than sloppy. It's real nursery food – comforting, tasty and evocative of childhood.
As ever, the meal ended with a couple of espressos and I found myself thinking how interesting that I liked this place so much more than my last visit.
It was as if it had found itself – it now had a personality completely in keeping with the menu.
Everything about the place, the restaurant and the pub downstairs, felt just right.
This is how gastropubs ought to be: friendly, welcoming, with well- above-average food at below-average prices.
I had remembered it as a posh restaurant that didn't quite work. Now I'll remember it as a gastropub that works really well. Our bill came to a modest €87.50.