Food writers have different ways of carving out a style of critique that makes them stand out. Some let on they don’t like to leave the city because they believe nothing in the provinces can possibly match the best in a capital city.
This prejudice is applicable to any country.
Others, like the the Observer’s Jay Rayner, major in out-of-town visits. This gives them the advantage of ‘discovering’ hidden restaurants and best-kept secrets.
There is a ring of truth to the charge that country and small town restaurants tend to be tied to convention and their customers’ tastes. This generally means that a lot of fodder and stodge, nothing to frighten the natives, is served.
But occasionally, when this food writer clears his visas for a visit to the country, surprises happen. Sometimes the conventional method is tinkered with to such an extent that while it still looks and sounds like traditional stodge, the reality is something altogether more sparkling and exciting. Think of Riverdance and what it did to the conventions of Irish dancing and you’re getting close to the The Pot Belly’s approach to Ulster’s culinary output.
The Pot Belly, in Tullylish, between Banbridge and Gilford, is housed in an old and fabulously ramshackle linen mill. It spreads out throughout the main building over two floors. There’s a rustic, warm, worn and creaking charm created from leather furniture, low wooden beams, gentle lighting and the kind of design that fits organically around the rooms’ many quirks and corners. Sure enough, there’s a real pot-bellied stove there too.
Brian Jardine, who has owned the place for the last 20 years, says he ended up just letting the place design itself after a number of professionals had advised knocking down walls and creating more orderly spaces. “You have to respect the history of the place,” he says.
A restaurant since the Seventies, the Pot Belly has grown its reputation over the years and today serves up top-quality, largely local produce. Duck, beef, lamb, fish, poultry and vegetables are all sourced from nearby and chef Fred Matchett, is the kind of cook who pays attention to detail, which marks him out as a passionate pro.
Six of us went on New Year’s Day expecting a feed and nothing special. After all, we were going into the country and if a Sunday was the least appealing day of the week (being the day scourged with rural carveries), then you could bet January 1 would be pretty dire. Not at the Pot Belly. No carvery, just a menu full of stuff you want on a winter’s day: Cajun chargrilled chicken with parsnip crisps; seabass fillets with garlic king prawns on tomato mash; salmon fillet in sticky lime and ginger marinade and soy dressing; roast rump of lamb cooked slightly pink with redcurrant and port jus and celeriac puree; and what is described on the menu as “our all-time favourite”, Pot Belly chicken, a breast filled with garlic and herb cream cheese baked in cranberries, cream and port. There are vegetarian things too, including Mexican enchilladas with roast Mediterranean vegetables, tomato salsa and melted cheese.
The great thing with a table of six is that you get to see and taste a broad spectrum of dishes, which makes it easlier to spot the flaws, if there are any. And while the excellence of the main courses was undisputed, the starters showed some shakiness.
Whereas the mussels from Carlingford, which were lightly poached in garlic, white wine and cream, were top of the class, juicy and perfectly timed and the Lissara duck liver parfait, was light and gamey, the Thai fishcakes and crumbed mushrooms were below par.
The fishcakes — always a reliable test of judgement, balance and generosity — tasted like potato croquettes with no discernible fishiness. Fishcakes are so appealing on a menu and so rarely do they deliver. The mushrooms had very little flavour and their blandness was unexpected.
But apart from this, everything else was delightful. The free-range duckling was the best I have had in 12 months — a roast and sliced magret was pink, tender, moist and the sliver of crispy fat gave it a deep, rich flavour. Beside the breast was a confit leg that crackled and shredded under the knife and yet was far from dry. Bringing the two together was a poached spice pear chutney making it memorable.
It wouldn’t be right not to mention Fred’s own version of Snickers ice cream. A salty peanut butter ice cream in a brandy snap basket covered in toffee and chocolate sauces — the stuff of children’s dreams!
Fishcakes x 2 £11.90
Garlic bread x 2 £3.90
Cajun chicken £13.95
Pork belly £14.95
Goujons x 2 £9
Potato chilli x 2, veg £8.85
Sparkling water £4.50
Diet Coke £1.95
Merlot glass x 2 £8.50
59 Banbridge Road, Gilford,
Co Armagh BT63 6DJ. Tel: 028 3883 1404