Personal tastes and preferences are so diverse when it comes to food, you wonder sometimes how restaurants survive at all.
Some diners like the bright and noisy bustling of fast food places, others the dim lights and dark corners of romantic bistros and in between there’s an almost endless choice of ethnic, modern, traditional, small, big, quiet, loud, urban, rural and roadside restaurants.
But whatever your mood preference is on a particular day or night, you’ll only go if the food is good. No matter how wonderfully designed, how charming or daring the restaurant might be to look at or sit in, if the food’s no good, there’s no point in being there.
Which brings me to Barnaby’s, a kind of bar restaurant compound beside a golf club on the outskirts of Ballyclare. A couple of years ago I went there as one of many invited guests to meet visiting celebrity chef James Martin over lunch.
James Martin is top drawer when it comes to TV presence. His Saturday Kitchen show is compelling and more popular than most cookery programmes. Its magic lies in the simplicity and accessibility of the food cooked before the camera. Martin’s charms on screen also reach into the hearts of millions of women, which explains why Barnaby’s was mobbed that particular day. So much passion in the room!
Adding to the fever, Martin talked excitedly about the local content in Barnaby’s menu (very good Dexter beef, Lissara duck and produce), the importance of good ingredients and respecting the growers for the massive contribution they were making towards Northern Ireland’s growing reputation for good food.
But that same day Barnaby’s dishes failed to match the Martin magic. The smoked salmon starters and then the Dexter beef fillets were brought out and received mild approval. But there was nothing there to make you sit up and take notice. I put this down to the pressures of event management, catering for a function, making sure the star of the show remains the star and so on.
Recently, I went back to conduct an interview for our sister publication, Business Month, with a food retailing expert because it happened to be close to his office.
We met in the car park and watched the golfers in the sunshine for a while. It felt American, like some parkland golf club in Virginia.
The building housing the restaurant also looks like a low-slung American country club. Inside, it is cool and modern in a Nineties way. It’s impeccably clean and gleaming with tiles and sofas and big picture windows. There’s also some bad art on the walls and a large wall-mounted video screen running commercials. The restaurant is in a round conservatory-like annex. The staff is able and friendly.
One look at the menu, however, confirms that James Martin’s influence must have been momentary. Among the starters are chicken liver pate, deep-fried brie, paprika-seasoned potato wedges, breaded Cajun chicken strips and so on. The Barnaby’s Combo For Two includes breaded mushrooms, wedges, filo prawns, chicken wings, baby ribs and a selection of dips. I’m trying to find a reasonable excuse to cancel the lunch, but it’s too late. Life’s too short for deep-fried brie.
The problem is that this menu is for people who don’t like food or can’t be bothered with it. For this sort of diner, a choice of mains that includes chicken Maryland, surf and turf, scampi and lasagne is reassuring. I like these, too, once in a while but cannot get my head around how James Martin would think this was top Northern Ireland fodder.
I am being a snob. Many, including the advisor, will argue that there’s a place for restaurants like this. And I know they’re right. Older people especially like to return to places that are predictable and unchanging and as long as the food, no matter how unimaginative, is of decent quality, then what’s the problem?
And it has to be said that the fishcakes were a well balanced combination of fish and potato once you broke through the brittle shell of breadcrumbs. The 10oz sirloin, which was brought out medium rather than rare, was nonetheless good quality and the oriental salmon steak had some decent flavours.
But it was lifeless food, food for those who rate a clean bathroom more highly than a finely cooked piece of fresh sea bream or duck. It’s the kind of food young chefs steer clear from because they want to open our eyes (and wallets) to new, exciting stuff.
The best that can be said about Barnaby’s is that it aims to get the most plain and simple food on a plate to you in a way that even a person who is shy of food will find agreeable.
The question of tastes and preferences is hard to answer and Barnaby’s will remain a puzzle to me.
Fishcakes x 2 £9
Glass white wine x 2 £8.70
Sparkling water x 2 £3.70
Coffee x 2 £4.20
153 Ballyrobert Road, Ballyclare BT39 9RT
Tel: 028 9335 4151