There is plenty of life in the old dog yet. Such was the attitude shared by Ronan and Jennie Sweeney and Danny Millar when they bought Lisbarnett House.
The magic threesome had already scored two bullseyes with restaurants Balloo House and The Parson’s Nose, and they were pretty sure their third adventure would maintain the winning streak.
The old country roadhouse had long been popular as a bar for those living in and around Lisbane, tucked among the gently rising and falling drumlins of eastern Co Down, close to Strangford Lough. But its restaurant offer of wholesome pub grub had become jaded, an afterthought. The chain of bars that owned it perhaps didn’t give it the love and attention it deserved and a new approach would enliven it once more, they said.
Even before the builders and decorators have been near the place — Sweeney says a £250,000 makeover will transform the look of it over the next few weeks — its reputation as one of the best grill rooms in the north is already taking root.
Last Sunday, five of us descended on Lisbarnett House and enjoyed an evening of top-flight steaks, burgers and seafood. Having salivated the night before over TV culinary thug Adam Richman’s Man versus Food episode in Denver, Colorado, my lust for grilled cow was on fire and uncontrollable. Richman had visited the Buckhorn, an ancient bar and grill in the city high up in the Rockies. He had reported on the seven or eight various steak cuts from the kitchen’s grill, taking a bite out of each succulent lump, driving me close to madness with desire.
This was mouth-watering television and even though the vast cuts and portions were obscene, I was hooked.
It was with this cattle rustler’s eye-twitching appetite that I looked at the menu and, lo and behold, all the dreamy stuff was there: flat-iron steak, rump, sirloin, rib-eye on the bone, Gloucester Old Spot pork T-bone, beef chilli, fries with chilli, fries with garlic butter, potato salads, coleslaws ... This was Rocky Mountain grill heaven and I’m Adam Richman. But while his calling card is entering, and usually winning, volume-eating competitions that seem to be a permanent fixture in US rough-house restaurants, Lisbarnett House is a bit more grown-up.
Starters of prawn cocktails, Marty Johnston’s smoked salmon and breaded chicken strips, sound as standard as the mains. But — and it’s a good point made by the teen’s boyfriend, Jake — making ordinary food this good marks Lisbarnett as very special indeed.
The prawn cocktails are pepped up with generous big shreds of crab meat and the Marie-Rose sauce — a delicate blend of mayo and ketchup with maybe a hint of tabasco — is a tribute to white trash dining.
The strips are enhanced with bacon flavours and a touch of Mexican-style smoked chipotle mayonnaise. But the salmon takes the award for best starter in this very tight competition, coming as it does on a bed of warm potato salad with scallions, capers, red onion and leaves. The smoked salmon is a fabulous pile of pinky-orange rags that are melt-in-your-
mouth tender, lightly smoky and distinctly fresh.
What follows is a replay of all my favourite burger and steak dreams from the night before, like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory scene except with meat and chargrills. Large, fat golden buns sit beneath and on top of constructions within of thick, dense Dexter beefburger, luscious salad, cherry tomatoes and chopped gherkins. They are massive and should be accompanied by a warning that one’s enough for two. They are wonderful and impossible to eat with any dignity.
The flat-iron Dexter steak comes on a wooden board with a jug of creamy pepper sauce and three huge battered onion rings. It resists the steak knife yet it is not tough. The texture is firm and the medium-rare cooked recommendation was spot on. It has the now-famous Dexter flavours: a little bit of iron, a touch of red Burgundy tang, and the hint of charred darkness from the grill makes it all the more appealing.
Same goes for the rump, which looks almost identical to the flat-iron even though it’s from the back end of the animal (the flat-iron is from the shoulder). We swap tastes and are surprised at the difference: subtle, but distinctive in terms of flavour and texture.
Millar is brilliant at making something ordinary extraordinary. He has the magic touch and the Sweeneys have a golden goose in him. All we can hope for now is that Lisbarnett House’s £250k makeover transforms it into a Western-style roadhouse bar and grill, maybe with a rodeo ring for bare back bronco riding, steer wrestling and some tie-down roping in the car park.
Don’t shake your head. The Wild West started in Ulster and we should reclaim it. And Lisbarnett House is as good a place to start as anywhere west of Kansas.
Prawn/crab cocktail x 3 £17.85
Smoked salmon £5.95
Chicken burger £9.95
Texan burger £10.95
Flat-iron steak £14.95
Rump steak £14.95
BBQ cheeseburger £10.95
Garlic fries supplement x 2 £2
Truffle fries supplement £1
Onion rings £3.50
Drew’s vegetables £3.50
Chocolate sundae £4.95
Sparkling water x 3 £5.40
Glass wine £3.95
Diet Coke x 2 £3.40
181 Killinchy Road, Lisbane, Co Down, BT23 5NE. Tel: 028 9754 1589.