The joy of eating is often misrepresented by those who think of food as fuel as something snobby, pretentious and false.
Many are baffled by the attention given to food by broadcasters and editors, food writers and bloggers. For them, the act of eating is no more interesting than a trip to the toilet. It’s a function and then you wipe your mouth.
But occasionally, even the most militant anti-foodies betray themselves. One hard man I know well (motto: “Eatin’s cheatin’”) recently explained to me how the best part of a Cookstown sausage is the bit which has burst through a punctured skin as it fries in the pan and becomes a dark and crispy ridge. I pointed out to him that he was in fact a foodie in denial.
If you have friends like this, then you must take them to Balloo House which is on the way to Killinchy in eastern Co Down. Balloo House has become a big food and drink complex catering for the ravenous table thumpers downstairs with set menus and brasserie food.
Also downstairs is a busy bar with authentic gougers drinking pints. Your anti-food friend will be reassured by the gruffness and no-nonsense but chummy attitude of staff and clients. They’ll be thinking ‘Actually, this is a grand place altogether’, so by the time you’ve guided them upstairs and entered the more refined world of French farmhouse chic with bar and lounge, they’ll be on the right side of curious.
Balloo House is an important link between the old attitudes to catering and the new. It’s a fine dining restaurant disguised as an old road house. Upstairs really is outstanding in almost every respect. The bar and lounge with direct access to the terrace outside for smokers is subdued and relaxing with grand but comfortable furniture and mood-enhancing lighting. The dining room is intimate yet not crowded or claustrophobic. And it’s all imbued with a polite sense of informality.
And when the menu arrives you are immediately reminded that your anti-food friends may be ready to rebel and demand to return downstairs. Because on the menu of starters are difficult words: Lisarra duck pithivier with cauliflower puree, roast cauliflower and hazelnut salad, carpaccio of Dexter beef fillet with crispy short rib fritter, beetroot and horseradish remoulade, confit Glenarm organic salmon with scallop ravioli and fennel and orange dressing and other delights including seared foie gras and Kilmore pigeon.
These may present a step too far but if they’re not willing to go with you, drop them. Because the advisor and I and our two food-loving friends found all of the above to be exquisite in every possible way. If you don’t enjoy the food in Balloo, your mouth is dead.
The pithivier, a small savoury pastry in which was ensconced a tender piece of duck meat, was like something straight out of a Bordeaux charcuterie. It was gamey and earthy, the meat playing off the crusts of pastry and the sweetness of the cauliflower puree. The salad provided a fourth dimension of cool tanginess and dry nutty crunch.
The advisor can never resist a carpaccio and when it’s made with Dexter fillet and sliced into tissue thin film she’s particularly happy. This one was brilliant — cutting the meat so thin enhances the flavour and when it’s married to horseradish remoulade, it’s heavenly.
The mains menu included roast Portloughan estate pheasant, Dexter beef sirloin, wild duck Wellington, fillet of Finnebrogue venison and seared Strangford scallops. This prompted choice anxiety as I could have had any or all. The pheasant won the toss principally because it came with slow-cooked leg sausage, creamed savoy cabbage, smoked bacon, chestnuts and potatoes fondant.
Comrade Eugene had the venison, an unusual appearance in fillet form rather than the usual haunch, which came with irresistible poato boxty, devilled kidneys, pommery mustard and Drew’s organic vegetables.
This is the stuff of winter dreams. Chef Danny Millar is the master of seasons and proves how exciting these dull days can be when you sit down for dinner.
The dinner went on and on into the night and those around us were in no rush to leave, either. The warm ambience, the com
fort of the place and the complete lack of pretentiousness make it a compelling destination for those of us who have to consider a £20 taxi. Among four, this is a minimal cost, easily absorbed into the joy of the occasion.
While the food and mood are wonderful, the staff are friendly if a bit uncertain, shakey and wobbly. But this is no bad thing if your deep fears of being intimidated by snooty servers keeps you away from fine dining restaurants.
Balloo House is a culinary marvel, a place which takes produce from within a five mile range and converts it into memorable, joyous and exciting dinners. Anyone who can’t get their heads around why this would be pleasurable needs Balloo therapy.
Pigeon x 2 £17.90
Pheasant x 2 £37.90
Beef sirloin £21.95
Seasonal veg £3.50
Cheese x 2 £15.90
Poached pear £6.95
Graves Blanc x 2 £57.90
1 Comber Road, Killinchy BT23 6PA.
Tel: 028 9754 1210