The Ulster market town with a hidden gastronomic jewel makes for a wonderful - and cheap - night out
Address: 1-5 Castle Avenue, Castlewellan, Co Down
Tel: Reservations 4377 2016
Castlewellan in the heart of Co Down might not at first glance seem the most obvious destination for people who love their food, but take a closer look and you'll find this attractive little market town has more to get your teeth into than you'd think.
There is, of course, the usual selection of carryouts and cafes that you'd find in any town of this size, and some of the bars do very acceptable pub grub.
But beyond that, there's the weekly farmers' market where you can pick up all sorts of goodies like rare-breed pork and beef, farmhouse cheeses and home-made ice cream and, just a mile or so outside the town, Burrenwood Produce does a roaring trade in supplying excellent organic fruit and veg to the surrounding area.
Picking up on this growing local interest in food and all its works, Hillyard House, a town centre B&B and conference centre, has started doing meals at the weekend, and, judging by our experience on a recent visit, doing them very well indeed.
Hillyard House is a relatively new enterprise built on the grounds of the former home of a 19th century doctor, Jeremiah Hillyard, who was well regarded for his care for rich and poor alike.
It began life as one of a number of projects aimed at regenerating the town and is probably the best located of all of them - right on the avenue that leads into the magnificent 2,000 acres of Castlewellan Park.
Because it's within easy reach of the forest park, the Mournes and all the outdoor pursuits the area has to offer, and the fact that it has 10 rooms and a conference room that can accommodate 50, Hillyard House has found a niche as a popular spot for corporate events, and I'm told many a company barbeque has gone on until the small hours within the attractive enclosed courtyard.
Leading off the courtyard is the restaurant, a plain and rather characterless room where considerable efforts have been made to enliven things with a choc ice decor of dark brown and mint green. Good lighting and comfortable seating do help create a relaxed air, however.
We ordered our meal in a small bar area and were ushered to the restaurant with the kind of friendly, informal efficiency that was the trademark of service throughout the evening. My wife Karen started off with a lightly sweet tropical combination of crab meat and mango set upon a bed of chard with a lemongrass and honey dressing, while across the table I was busy with crispy duck wontons partnered by a lively ginger and leek salsa. Both were followed by a sharp little lemon sorbet that cleared the palate for the next course.
For mains, Karen had a sizeable fillet of moist chicken stuffed with Cheddar cheese and wrapped in Parma ham, accompanied by potatoes sauteed with chunks of chorizo.
My plate was filled with an inch-thick fillet of beef cooked exactly the way I wanted it, laid on a bed of wild mushrooms and spinach and dotted with shavings of Parmesan and a punchy red wine reduction. Along with all this came more potatoes sauteed in onion and rosemary and a portion of well-cooked mixed veg that included carrot, cauliflower, mangetout and red pepper.
Desserts included a freshly-made chocolate pudding (we were warned it would take 15 minutes) with a warm, gooey chocolate filling inside a chocolate sponge shell, which was definitely worth waiting for, plus a tangy lemon tart, and a pot of coffee to finish everything off.
One of the most surprising aspects of the whole experience was the price. The three-course meal that we had would normally cost a very reasonable £22.95 each (or £19.95 for two courses), plus wine starting at around a tenner a bottle, but thanks to a special Friday night promotion, we paid just £47 for the whole lot.
Even in a town that still holds a horse fair where canny deals are done with a spit and a handshake, that must rank as one of the best bargains around. Go now before they put the prices up.
What we had
Crispy duck wontons
Crab and mango with chard
Fillet of beef with wild mushrooms and spinach
Chicken wrapped in Parma ham
Bottle of Chilean shiraz
Pot of coffee
How it rated
Castlewellan Farmers' Market currently runs every Saturday from 10am-1pm in the town's Upper Square (information, 4377 2080). Burrenwood Produce, 4377 1844.