Co Down food stars aim to be gem in Ireland's crown
Thanks to entrepreneurs and some outstanding chefs, a small corner of Northern Ireland is challenging Belfast as the place to eat out. Clare Weir finds out more
Food tourism is a growing market and while in the past hungry holiday makers may have journeyed far and wide to the likes of Italy or France for eating experiences, a talented bunch of Northern Ireland chefs are hoping to attract more adventurous epicures to a small corner of Co Down.
The region has long been recognised for its fare.
Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum has now expanded into Belfast and Dublin and not one, but two award winning meat producers, Hannan Meats and McCartney's, are located in Moira.
TV favourite Paul Rankin, who founded Roscoff and Cayenne, hails from Ballywalter, while Michael Deane, of Deane's Deli and the Meat Locker, grew up in Lisburn and opened his first restaurant in Helen's Bay.
One of Northern Ireland's first 'celebrity chefs' was Robbie Millar, who ran Shanks Restaurant in Bangor, Co Down, which was awarded a Michelin star.
However Shanks closed down in 2005 after Mr Millar was tragically killed in a car accident.
But his legacy lives on.
Danny Millar – no relation – has become one of Ireland's best known chefs and was named 'Best Chef in Ireland' at the Restaurant Association of Ireland awards in 2010 and is now blazing a trail in the industry as director of Balloo Inns.
He has been namechecked in the Michelin Guide, the Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland and Georgina Campbell's 'Best of the Best' in Ireland Guide and is a regular face on BBC1 cooking show Saturday Kitchen and the popular series Great British Menu, where he was the winner of the Northern Ireland region for two consecutive years.
After training in Germany in the mid-90s the moved home to cook with Robbie Millar. He then moved to the Narrows in Portaferry before spending four years at Paul Rankin's Cayenne in Belfast where he was head chef.
In September 2006 he joined Balloo Inns, which started off when managing director Ronan Sweeney bought Balloo House in Killinchy in 2003.
Other venues in the group now include The Parson's Nose in Hillsborough (formerly the Marquis of Downshire) and The Poacher's Pocket in Lisbane.
Formerly Lisbarnett House, the latter re-opened with a new name in April 2014 following a £350,000 refurbishment which included the addition of a food and wine farm shop, The Poacher's Pantry.
Overall, Balloo Inns has spent over £1m since purchasing the property in September 2012, with the creation of five full-time and eight part-time new jobs.
Mr Sweeney said that the success of the company was based on bringing restaurant quality food into traditional pubs and highlighting local produce.
"We started the company in 2003 and really took off when Danny came on board in 2006," he said.
"We'd been chipping away at the pub and restaurant trade and our strength is that we can offer a family environment and quality food and giving a good all-round experience.
"Your expectations shouldn't be low just because you are in a pub.
And while many pubs say the smoking ban harmed their business, Mr Sweeney said it was an opportunity for theirs.
"Before that you would never have dreamt of taking your kids into a smoky environment for something to eat.
"People like Irish pubs, they want to visit them and eat in them. The English have done the gastro-pub thing very well, and we have taken a wee bit of that and transposed it into Co Down."
A growing zest for travel has also worked in their favour.
"People have travelled a lot in the last 20 and 30 years and because of these trips to places like Tuscany or Portugal they realise that the food they are served there is a reflection of what is produced in the area and in Northern Ireland it should be no different.
"This area of Co Down has high quality food and is rediscovering itself as a culinary destination. In the past there was a lot of mediocrity and bought-in produce, which is ridiculous when you think of what we have on our own doorstep.
"We have local cheesemakers, brewers, butchers, and all of these guys are now punching at the weight that they should have been doing years ago.
"We have great fish, meat and vegetables, the first of the Comber potatoes have just come in and we are selling them and serving them now. There is huge benefit to the local economy, we take their product and package it or cook it the best we can, and it reflects well on the producers and people want to come back for more – there is a natural symbiosis."
And Mr Sweeney has not ruled out further expansion.
"More people are travelling to the area, there is a lot more food tourism, traditionally people would have gone to Belfast or the North Coast but we are hoping to tap into that leisure industry and people need a reason to travel.
"At this stage we have invested £1m in the Poacher's Pocket. Turnover has doubled since the re-opening and we are hoping that is going to continue.
"Kinsale is recognised as the gastro capital of the south, we want to be the Kinsale of Co Down.
"We're all about re-investing, we're not going to sit back on our laurels. We took the opportunity to try and lift Lisbarnett House from losing money, now its making money, we are realising a huge capital investment. The premises were wrong, we made them right. With the Parson's Nose, we turned it from a drinking pub which served food to a restaurant which serves alcohol and is now doing very well, and there is no saying we cannot do that again."
Another Co Down restaurateur who has returned to the fold after time away is Will Brown.
His family owned the Old Schoolhouse Inn in Castle Espie near Comber for three decades before he returned from working in London to take the reins just over two years ago.
Following a total refurbishment, Mr Brown is now planning a new garden area to grow even more of his own produce.
He started his cooking career in London with Marco Pierre White at the Mirabelle in Mayfair aged 17. He then returned to Belfast were he worked in Roscoff under Paul Rankin. He then moved to London and during a three-year stint he worked at The Square, a two Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair and The Glasshouse.
One of his restaurant's specialities is foraged herbs and Mr Brown said that the welcoming nature of the local community is what makes the area so special.
"I love local produce in season. We are in a beautiful part of the world, we have Finnebrogue venison, we grow our own broccoli just 100 metres away from the kitchen door, we have amazing seafood – it wouldn't be unusual for local boys to just land at the back door with a big box of crabs, langoustines or lobsters.
"This is a great community to be a part of. Locals want to be involved, they bring things, they give you ideas, they eat here too, and that kind of thing draws people in. People drive from Dublin to eat here.
"But we're not fine dining – we're a restaurant for everybody, and I think it is important to give people a great product on a plate and also value for money – we don't rip people off. We also have 12 bedrooms and provide accommodation for those who do want to spend more time in the area."
Belfast Telegraph restaurant critic Joris Minne said that the "clustering phenomenon" has definitely had an impact on restaurant provision in rural areas of Northern Ireland.
"I think it does happen when one good place opens, then is followed by two and three and four – it can really be seen in areas like the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast," he said.
"In Co Down there is a bit more prosperity, and a lot of Northern Ireland's best suppliers of seafood and meat are in Co Down so it is little wonder that the area has such good restaurants.
"Anecdotally, people are now even food shopping in a different way – rather than doing a big supermarket shop once a week, people are going to the butcher or the grocers and taking more care in what they eat at home, so they are also taking more care in where they eat out.
"Clever restaurateurs can see what the trends are – less emphasis on fine dining, less precision, more of a bistro, rustic style of cooking.
"The destination is critical for those who are out of town. The majority of people are going to be travelling from the Belfast area, especially if they are tourists, so Co Down is close.
"The Co Down area is rural but it is highly populated, so there are good strong markets close to hand."
Multiple accolades for Balloo Inns
In just over 10 years, Balloo Inns venues have scooped armfuls of awards.
In 2007, Balloo House itself won the Hospitality Award from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and was the pub of the year in Ireland in 2009 in Georgina Campbell’s Ireland Awards.
It was named the best restaurant in Co Down and won the best customer service award from the Restaurant Association of Ireland 2010.
Balloo House was declared Best Restaurant in Ulster 2011 by Food and Wine Magazine and in 2012 picked up the Observer Food Monthly Awards for best Sunday lunch in addition to an AA rosette.
Last year it was voted the Good Food Guide Readers Restaurant of the Year.
The Parson’s Nose was declared best casual dining venue in Co Down by the Restaurant Association of Ireland in 2010 and in 2011 it was named a Taste of Northern Ireland Award winner by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Recommendations in food and travel guides include Balloo House in the Good Food Guide 2013, for Balloo House, The Parson’s Nose and Poacher’s Pocket in the Michelin Guide 2013, for Balloo House and The Parson’s Nose in the Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland 2013 and namechecks for all three in Georgina Campbell’s Ireland 2013.
Chef Danny Millar has also won a number of awards.