How brilliant Billy Andy’s is helping to put Larne on the map as a visitor destination
Poor old Larne. Always getting it in the neck for being the backwater, the town of two halves, the gateway and never the destination. The town’s reputation as the capital of dull is widely acknowledged and even its more graceful streets are grey and as monochrome as a hymn book.
Yet Larne has a secret place in a growing number of people’s hearts. It has been so fashionable to slag off Larne for the last 20 years that an equal and opposite reaction is now rumbling in the bowels of the nation.
Comedian Nuala McKeever recently entertained guests at an awards gala and representatives from Larne Borough Council were present among the finalists.
A few jokes about Larne quickly revealed that the crowd — including the gracious Larne table — could have a laugh about the place, but it was only allowed to go so far. The audience was clearly in protective mood and gently guided McKeever away from the port town to focus her comedy lasers on somewhere else. Lurgan.
Is Larne making a comeback? When were Larne’s golden years, anyway? And is there any reason why you’d want to go there other than to get to Scotland?
Well, yes, actually. Very near Larne (admittedly not in Larne itself) is the pretty village of Glenoe and its famous waterfalls. Next time the sun comes out on a Sunday afternoon you should get the map out, find Glenoe and head for the waterfalls. A bracing little walk down to the water’s edge, a quick look around the fairytale scenery and a skip back to the car will allow you to build up a healthy appetite in time for your booking at nearby Billy Andy’s. You’ll need it because meals in Billy Andy’s are as big on quantity as they are in quality.
The extended farmhouse pub has all the charms you’d expect of a place that looks as quaint as a set from The Quiet Man. Sitting in the middle of the rolling south east Antrim hills, Billy Andy’s is just the ticket for those of you bringing visitors around Northern Ireland and, having exhausted the haunts around the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast, need somewhere else to add to the portfolio.
Billy Andy’s is your man. The old pub in the front of the place with roaring fireplace and damp old men at the bar is textbook rural Ulster. But what’s more endearing is that the homey authenticity of the place has been upgraded by the quality of the food on offer in the restaurant out back.
Billy Andy’s is a quality diner with a little bit of edge and imagination. The slate and wood floors, old tin sheet adverts and a fascinating collection of mounted delft plates featuring tractors from days gone by — including old Massey Fergusons, John Deeres, a Case and a couple of David Browns — set the mood.
It would have been perfect had they lit the fire in the beautiful hearth inside the door of the dining room on this miserable autumn afternoon. The extensive menu is packed with all the dishes you’d want if you were scared of food (as many children and older people can be) if it doesn’t include roast beef, choice of three potatoes, gravy and sides. On the other hand there are plenty of intriguing meals for those who need a bit of excitement. Which means it’s perfect for taking the grandparents, the children and even distant cousins who are vegetarian.
There is a table d’hote menu at £15.50 for three courses or £12.95 for two and you can even have a main course for less than a tenner. But there were too many points of interest on the general menu, including rabbit terrine, Magheramorne ‘head to toe’ beef, best end of Mounthill texal lamb and Glenoe
sirloin — fabulously earthy and rooted titles that sound as much part of the landscape as Billy Andy’s itself.
The seared breast of pigeon was right on the mark with its accompanying sautéed spinach, baby girolles and celeriac. Deep, salty, gamey flavours came through with the solidly textured (but not tough) pigeon mixing nicely with the juicy moist spinach and girolles.
The adviser’s rabbit terrine was a chunky, voluminous hunk of super-coarse pâté with bite-size nuggets of tender meat amid the compressed liver and pancetta. It would have been fabulous if it had come with the promised fennel and gherkin salad — instead it came with a few boring green leaves that were served on every other dish.
The list of starters was compelling and we could have had a classic Euro dish of pan-fried king scallops with chorizo and haricot bean cassoulet or smoked haddock and crab cakes or even pea and broadbean risotto with tomato concasse and black pepper crème (concasse is crushed tomato meat minus skin, membrane, seeds etc). I’m listing these simply to give you a flavour of this surprising restaurant. And the wonder doesn’t stop there. The mains are equally enthralling.
Tossing up heads for the braised ox cheeks of the Magheramorne ‘head-to-toe’ beef (which came with shin stew, caramelised onion and mash and other accompanying delights) or harps for the lamb, the lamb got it. Best end turned out to be a very, very large chop. This cut is normally split to half the size to create two chops but by keeping it this way the variance of well-done exterior and pinky centre was well highlighted. The succulent meat was the kind that prompts you to gnaw the bone down to the core to extract every last morsel.
Accompanying minted pea purée (what happened to ‘mushy’?) was too watery and tasteless, although the buttery broadbeans were spot on. A mini hotpot on the side was a great idea well executed and was just the job to moisten the champ, roasties, mashed carrot and parsnip, beetroot and all the other vegetables.
The adviser’s sole was disappointing and too fussy. While it was cooked properly there was too much interference from the unwanted and unnecessary accompaniments, which included more green leaves.
Children’s dishes are healthy and there’s plenty of choice. Mine, of course, run a mile from anything described as healthy so it’s reassuring that the chicken goujons and chips are all freshly made.
So you see? Larne is creeping back into the good books. With an ally like Billy Andy’s and may be a couple more good restaurants, a long-promised marina and a decent bar, Larne could be the next Bangor. No, seriously.
Rabbit terrine £4.95
Kids menu £3.95
Texal lamb £13.95
Sunday lunch £15.50
Pint Guinness £2.65
Glass wine £3.25
Cokes x 2 £2.60
Large water £2.50