Some restaurants are temples to pretension with waiters and waitresses in starchy-looking, tight-fitting, throat-squeezing outfits, all huff and puff and determined to make you feel utterly intimidated.
It doesn't matter how wise, wealthy, successful or famous you are, you will be made to feel like the village idiot the moment you walk past the wait-here-to-be-seated sign.
From here you will follow the lofty waiter to a nightmare table that sits like a sacrificial altar in the middle of the dining room for everyone to look at you. Your immediate sense of discomfort and danger is over-ridden by your even greater sense of doing the right thing and not causing a scene or drawing attention to yourself by requesting to sit somewhere else less exposed. And your night is ruined before the menu has even been opened.
Other restaurants achieve this effect by completely ignoring your arrival for several hours, or by acknowledging your arrival only to deny you ever booked a table at all. Either way, you will have flipped through every emotion known to humankind and be reduced to a dribbling and absurdly grateful jelly by the time a waiter approaches to tell you your table is ready.
It is staggering in this day and age of the empowered (and credit-embattled) diner that these places still exist in Northern Ireland. I've been to some of them and I'm looking forward to revealing some in the next few weeks.
Fortunately, in my job as a reviewer, I have yet to be subjected to any such horrors. In the meantime, my culinary tour of the North has taken me to friendly, professional and sometimes very good eating houses. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Balloo House was as inviting as its name is charming.
This rambling big old road house, which sits halfway between Comber and Killyleagh in Co Down, is a magnet that draws hundreds of family diners each week. It was always a pretty decent place where there was quality in the volume, but in recent times, it has acquired a new reputation as a relaxed gastro-pubby kind of place.
There is a proper bar in the place, where locals grunt and mutter at you as you walk past them to get to the bustling dining room beyond. The dining area is a series of inter-connected rooms with low ceilings and an eye-catching collection of early photographs of regional towns, villages and general industrial activity from yesteryear.
Upstairs is said to be excellent and very posh and that will be the subject of a future review. For now, we are getting down and dirty among the chattering happy families, birthday parties and odd couples.
I've been here many times and it has always been busy — busy on the verge of overloaded. Some of the waitresses look frazzled and anxious as they negotiate the tightly-packed tables delivering drinks and food, taking orders and spraying and rubbing down just-vacated tables with very unappetising lemon-scented cleaner. But despite the palpable stress, there are no delays, the table is quickly found and orders soon taken.
That's because it's Sunday evening and we've enjoyed a lazy day kicking autumn leaves, getting a bit wet in the rain showers and working up a hunger.
The menu is extensive. There are more than 36 dishes to choose from not counting the desserts. You can have five different kinds of steak. This might seem a dangerous approach considering there must be more than a hundred people in the place at any one time. Surely, a more simple menu with fewer choices
might make life easier? But this is where I would fail completely as a restaurateur. On close inspection, there is, quite literally, something for everyone. Duck confit spring roll, crispy Strangford crab cakes, devilled Finnebrogue venison kidneys with mushroom, bacon and toasted brioche? And that's just some of the starters.
A sucker for offal, I ordered the kidneys. My adviser had the spiced prawn cocktail with guacamole and crispy tortilla. They were both fine if you like that kind of thing. Both are easy enough to prepare, one earlier and the other on the spot. The weakest point was the brioche, which was closer to a slice of toasted Brennans white bread. The venison kidneys are markedly different from lambs' more commonly used in this dish. They are more acidic but, as expected, gamier. The thing about devilled kidneys is the richness of the port in the sauce and the tenderness of the chunks which is why lambs' kidneys with their softer texture and lower acidity may work better.
The starters nonetheless hit the spot and were soon followed by a bavette of steak with béarnaise sauce. What the French call bavette, we call skirt and very tasty it is too. The meat came in four, fat-free slices (Balloo will only serve it up cooked medium rare). It was both tender and sinuey. Its moist rare centre contrasted nicely with the dark exterior to create that typical steak you get in France when you order steak-frites. The béarnaise did the business and each drop from the little ramekin it came in was savoured and relished.
The adviser's chargrilled steak bruschetta with crispy onions and horseradish mayo also passed muster. The quality of the meat is, according to Balloo House, down to the fact that it's local and dry-aged for 21 days.
While tables around us emptied and filled again within minutes, desserts arrived. We realised that we had ordered what we always order when we see these on the menu — apple crumble and sticky toffee pudding. But this is a good thing as it is fine tuning this reviewer's mastery of the science of analytical comparative crumble and pudding making.
The crumble was textbook. A mound of perfectly separated crumbles, soft, chewey and crunchy guarded over a white-hot appley centre ready to be cooled down with a little accompanying bowl of vanilla ice cream. The pudding, on the other hand, had just survived a microwave attack and wasn't warm enough. Although it wasn't bad, you could tell it had started life well but had ended it sadly.
Two smaller Minnes, determined to discover Northern Ireland's perfect chicken goujons and who therefore refuse to order anything else, said Balloo's were good with the garlic mayo, but scarily big. There is a good children's menu — they should have gone for the mussels, or the home-made burger instead. They will the next time. ‘The menu is extensive. There are more than 36 dishes to choose from, not counting the desserts’Prawn cocktail £5.90
Venison kidneys £5.95
Kids goujons £3.25
Chicken goujons £8.95
Steak bruschetta: £12.95
Chips x 2 £5.90
Half bottle |Beaujolais £9.50
Toffee pudding x 2 £7.00
Apple crumble £3.50
Diet sprite X 2 £2.50
Sparkling water £2.65