What mystery surrounds the busy kitchens of the Old Inn at Crawfordsburn?
One minute the owners are in a dispute with a former head chef, the next, Gary Bell, the wonder boy from the Portaferry Hotel, makes a brief appearance and is gone again by the time I’ve booked a table for three.
I’d heard rumours that Bell was going up to the refurbished Old Inn and thought: now’s the chance to revisit the place following the mediocre review it received the last time. But I was too late. He was here yesterday but he’s gone, said one server. The head chef, I was told, is Gavin Murphy.
None of this had any impact whatsoever on the diners streaming in on Sunday evening in their best Pringle jumpers. For them, the Old Inn would put on a decent spread no matter who’s in the kitchen. And there’s the secret to longevity, a reputation not for brilliance — people can still be put off by fancy modern cooking — but for reliability.
The big 124-seater restaurant feels intimate and cosy in a grand kind of way thanks to the clubby chairs, thick carpets, good lighting and split floors and dining areas. It is a supremely comfortable place, one that an older generation appreciates and which adheres to the old standards of hospitality.
The floor staff are friendly and well managed — there is absolutely no chance of being forgotten or ignored.
And if the place feels luxurious enough to make you wonder about the prices, a quick run-down the Bible-proportioned menu quickly reveals a two-course special for two people including a bottle of wine (excellent Primitivo) for £52.50. Only the Old inn at Crawfordsburn could make austerity so palatable.
I counter-reference the starters and mains in the special menu against the a la carte and there’s no sign of cut corners. And not only that, but even after ordering the cheap menu, we still got excellent little amuse bouches of salmon mousse on toasted wheaten and chicken liver parfait with sweet onion marmalade.
The menu is a cut above convention, not fancy or modern, but not all boiled beef either. A haggis and Clonakilty Scotch egg comes on a warm slice of chorizo with a few leaves. This turns out to be a Scotch egg in which the sausage meat is made of haggis and crumbled black pudding coated in breadcrumbs. It’s very good, particularly as the egg is slightly runny and melts into the savoury meaty shell to create a silky smooth texture full of salty flavour. The chorizo is a bit surplus to needs but welcome all the same.
The advisor’s prawn cocktail comes with a freshly baked wheaten bun. There’s plenty of it and the lush mix of chopped lettuce leaves, prawns, and Marie Rose are perked up with a couple of sliced tangy cherry tomatoes and a sliver or two of sweet apple. It’s as good a prawn cocktail as you’ll get anywhere, seriously.
There are plenty of mains to choose from the so-called restricted menu: seabass, cod, roast guinea fowl, beef Wellington and much more. Because the winter is still with us I get the braised daube of beef with sautéed savoy cabbage, baby carrots, peas, horseradish dumplings, mash and shallots.
The beef is exceptional in flavour and form. It’s rare to get such rich, strong beefy flavours from something that has cooked so slowly and for so long to reach this fall-apart-at-the-touch tenderness. I eat it slowly and then the cabbage and mash come into view and are equal to their support role, both smooth and creamy and tangy and crunchy.
The two weak spots are the dumpling, which is uncooked and still in dough form, and the gravy, which tastes as if it has been reduced too long, losing its flavour and leaving a burnt and bitter aftertaste. If chef Murphy had dipped his finger in to taste it before serving it up, I’m sure he would have thrown it out and got some fresh. That’s what Gary Bell would have done.
The advisor is happy with the beef Wellington, pink in the middle and plentiful. She agrees that the gravy is not good.
A quartet of banana desserts includes a fritter, an ice-cream, a caramelised sliced and a sponge. All are good and work well together, the ice-cream melting into the sponge and the other two performing their own moist little sweet roles.
Whoever’s in the kitchen, which incidentally is on full view and looks like a spectacularly bright and shiny laboratory of brushed steel and white tiles, the Old Inn just keeps on doing its thing with aplomb and care. Diners are happy, the staff are just the kind of people you’d wish were looking after you in your dotage and that carpet under foot make it special.
Dinner and wine for two £52.50
Prawn cocktail £6.95
Chicken goujons & chips £6
Diet Coke £2.10
15 Main St, Crawfordsburn, Co DownBT19 1JH
Tel: 028 9185 3255