Restaurant meals and experiences are probably the most hit or miss consumable on earth when it comes to quality and value for money. If you buy a shirt or a skirt, the value and quality are pretty much a given whether the item’s from Marks & Spencer or Miu Miu.
Similarly, food in shops is now reliable and good value. But when it comes to restaurants and their food and service, is it any wonder that McDonald’s corporate underpinnings are based on the provision of the exact same burger and experience as you’d expect in every other McDonald’s. By and large this works. The idea is that you know what to expect when you order a Big Mac or a Happy Meal and you know how much it will cost.
Unless a restaurant is long established or enjoys a glowing and widely acknowledged reputation, the element of surprise will always accompany a trip to dinner. There should be a warning, like the Financial Services Authority one that alerts investors that stocks can go up as well as down. Things in a restaurant can go wrong or brilliantly well.
Even under intense pressure, the Beech Hill Country House just outside Derry is one of those places that keeps the quality standards high. It has been serving up classy but homey hospitality for two decades. The grand old house set in stunning grounds is the epitome of old-fashioned comfort and is popular with weddings and social functions as much as it is with the political classes in the north west.
It has also been blessed with a restaurant that has been putting out good food since it opened. In fact, the Beech Hill was my highest scoring hotel restaurant in a recent competition. Much of the success comes from the efforts of owner Patsy O’Kane, whose personality is firmly stamped on everything in the place — that’s to say, modesty with warmth and hospitality with heart. She is also very disciplined and runs a tight ship.
Sometimes this can work against a business. If the staff are running a hotel restaurant with the guest firmly in mind then chances are things are going to be fine with or without the boss being there. If, on the other hand the staff have been trained to keep the boss happy, as soon as she’s offside, things will slow down and the customer won’t really matter so much.
When we went to the Beech Hill on a Sunday at 5pm in time for the early evening menu, there was hardly a sinner in the place. There are precise times in the winter just when dark falls in the countryside, when crows and rooks screech and quarrel in the trees, when the cold wind blows the leaves about an empty car park and you feel like there are no humans left on the planet but you. These are not the best times to wander into a deserted hotel restaurant. Shifts haven’t really started, it’s a bit early for dinner — in short, it’s one hell of a test for the reputation of a hotel restaurant.
Yet the quiet mood is not depressing here. It’s cheerful. There are two fires lit in the lounge, one at either end of the graceful room. There is an elegant team of three seasoned servers on hand and the feeling is of being the first to arrive at a much anticipated party. You’re all fired up but things need to happen soon otherwise the joy will be spent prematurely. But immediately we are being guided into the dining room. The last light of the day allows us just enough time to see the dark river valley below and the tall trees around the park. The early evening menu has been eschewed in favour of something more substantial and we’re not disappointed. As we order, some people drift in and soon the warm murmur of conversations and the clink of glasses and cutlery starts the soundtrack of fun.
Starters of warm gateau of smoked chicken, ham and wild mushrooms with a crisp of roasted regatto cheese and port sauce and a saffron linguini with Malin Head crab and clams in a champagne cream sauce sound grandly refined and terribly haute cuisine. The chicken gateau is in fact a rustic big dish, all crumbly textured and roughly cut pieces of ham and mushrooms with a rich wintry sauce. It is a pukka winter meal and so generous in volume as to raise doubts about post-starter capacity. The linguini is second fiddle to a mound of crab and clams and the adviser says it’s good too, juicy and fresh-tasting.
A north Atlantic salmon with Donegal crab, coriander butter and spiced tomato coulis is equally powerful and deep on flavours. Although the salmon is a very small steak, I couldn’t have managed any more after the gateau and it works out fine. The grilled Irish fillet with seared foie gras, red onion marmalade, parfait and chunky chips has an additional £4 tag. If judged on weight alone it would be good value. As it happens the fillet has good flavour despite its leanness and although it is almost cold, the adviser perseveres because the combined tenderness, flavour and texture work too well for the heat, or lack of, to matter very much.
The memorable sticky toffee pudding is my last memory before heading back to Belfast in the pitch black. Reliable, high quality was tested under the worst possible conditions and the Beech Hill came through smiling. As did we.
Dinner menu x 2 £59.90
Goujons and chips £8.95
Roast beef £13.95
Torres Vina £15.95