Despite the shameful lack of Michelin stars in Northern Ireland the quality of our chefs continues to rise. The shame, by the way, is on Michelin for ignoring restaurants here which are as good as any British and Irish one-star winners.
Last week I reported on the Portaferry Hotel and its restaurant, recently acquired by Bill Wolsey, Ulster’s hospitality tsar. Here was the beautiful tale of restaurant-meets-talented-new-chef, a story of true love which could only result in a magnificent and mouth-watering happy ending.
The same has been happening in the heart of Co Antrim at the glamorous Galgorm Resort and Spa whose River Room restaurant has quietly evolved from reliable and wholesome to devilishly exciting.
Thanks to the appointment of Chris Bell, recently back from his TV triumphs on the Great British Menu, the River Room has become one of the best formal restaurants in the north. When I say formal, that’s because of the linen, the crystal, the hushed service and the conventional décor.
But what is served up on the dish is adventurous, occasionally daring and, from what I’ve tried, deeply tasty.
A great way to mark the seasons, Chris Bell’s quarterly series of tasting menus will soon be a must-do for anyone with an interest in good food. If that interest extends to good wine too, you have the option of adding to the £60 cost for six courses and paying an extra £50 for as many wines.
I took up an invitation to the autumn tasting menu last week. Frankly, if the winter, spring and summer dinners are as good as this (The Taste of Irish Winter event is on Tuesday, December 13), then Chris Bell will have confirmed the River Room’s candidacy among the country’s best hotel restaurants.
The tasting menu evening is perfect for small groups and couples — I went with a well-travelled and respected Dublin journalist who knows his food, expects high standards and has conceded in recent years that north of the border is the place to go if you like your scran.
On arrival, the Dubliner and I had been ushered into a swanky waiting area by the cool, calm and gracious maitre d’, Chloe. Here we were served a glass of chilled prosecco and an appetising selection of amuses bouche (literally ‘mouth-entertainers’) including glazed wallnuts and tiny savoury pasties served on a slate.
After a comfortable settling-in period, we were taken into the River Room and shown to a table by the window. Looking discreetly around the big dining room (during the day the views are spectacular) I saw a full house of quietly spoken fours and twos. You didn’t have to be a social anthropologist to decipher the behavioural signs of some of the younger couples in which one of the party was hugely impressed, the other clearly hopeful.
And that’s the thing about tasting menu evenings — they are meant to impress. You’re there for the food, not for business or to discuss family matters. So the pressure’s on the kitchen to come up with the goods, each dish being slightly more spectacular than the previous.
Front of house staff have to match the quality with seamless service and deliver all seven courses (some restaurants do tasting menus with more than 20 dishes) with panache.
A steady, rhythmic to-ing and fro-ing started with a quick introduction by Chloe of each wine immediately followed by the arrival of the accompanying dish. The ignition to the evening was a warm Jerusalem artichoke and hazelnut soup. The reassurance that a great soup brings into a turbulent life cannot be underestimated. There is something primeval, basic and maternal about a great soup. If your head is scrambled and stressed, a quality soup is like pressing the reset button. Your mind clears and you feel you can make a fresh start.
This was one of those soups — not that I am particularly stressed or in turmoil. The Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber, not unlike a potato (but nothing like your regular artichoke) and partnering it with hazelnuts in a creamy, slightly frothy potage makes for a wonderful taste of autumn. The following plate of Toomebridge smoked eel with crispy bacon, celeriac and golden raisins was as carefully executed and as well considered. The small volume packed a huge punch in flavour and the slow dawning that Ulster’s less well known catalogue of produce is much more varied than you’d think.
The third starter, a fricassee of wild mushrooms, duck egg and béarnaise sauce, was like a magician’s assistant tugging the curtain further back to reveal yet more unexpected and top quality local produce, transformed into something even more fabulous by Chris Bell.
By the time we’d reached the thyme-roasted loin of Finnebrogue venison with Anna potato, butternut squash, chestnuts in port and sage, we had almost convinced ourselves that we had now seen it all. The full panoply of hidden Ulster produce had been brought to us. Until we started to list the stuff that hadn’t been there: the trout, salmon, lamb and pork, the kale, carrots, parsnips and cabbage, and all the rest.
Finishing on an apple Charlotte, a wonderfully light little turnover with vanilla ice cream, we concluded that really, there was no point in gurning about Michelin any more. If they couldn’t be bothered to take a look at this almost perfect display of produce and preparation, they could go back to Clermont Ferrand and stay there.
Tasting menu (inc wine)
(Six courses plus coffee) x 2 £220
(Six courses without wine x 2 would have been £120)
136 Fenaghy Road, Balymena BT42 1EA
Tel: 028 2588 1001