This north Antrim hotel has everything going for it... except its ordinary food
The north coast of Antrim has been among the world’s star achievers in the tourism business in terms of international profile. Long before there was Bord Failte or the British Tourist Authority there was our own Ulster Tourism Development Association which, by using some of the most stunning scenic images by artists including Paul Henry in marketing posters of the country and its coast line, exhorted the world to visit our rolling glens, our luscious pastures and our other-worldly Giant’s Causeway.
Right enough, when God was dishing out the tourist sites, north Antrim did well. Apart from the Giant’s Causeway there’s the world’s oldest whiskey distillery, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, Royal Portrush Golf Club and sitting pretty in the middle of all this breathtaking landscape is the Bushmills Inn.
No luckier a hotel has there ever been in Ireland than the hotel that lies half way between the Causeway and the distillery. Brand-wise, the Bushmills Inn is gold standard territory and better by miles than its original name, the Antrim Arms. And if the Bushmills Inn has done well out of tourist promotions in the last 20 years — there is a flag of every nation stashed away in a hotel cupboard and they fly the one of the guest’s home nation that is farthest away from Northern Ireland — it has the Tourist Board and the other promotion agencies to thank. Because one thing’s for sure, the place does not rely on its restaurant’s quality to attract these guests.
To be fair it’s not at all bad. The food is decent and in recent years it has improved, but the main attraction of going to the Bushmills Inn is the cosiness, the wood panelling, the tiny booths in the main dining room and, for the children, the little brass lights that they can pull up and down over your table thanks to the wheel-and-pulley cable.
What the Bushmills Inn tries to do, and it should be commended for this alone, is to sell the diner food that is pure Ulster. But despite all attempts to be authentic, and some of these are valiant, the restaurant doesn’t deliver that sense of essential Ulster flavour that its hotel operation seems to thrive on.
The extraordinary fireplace with mounds of glowing turf that first greets you as you enter is always blazing and sets the mood. If you’ve just had a blast down on the Causeway’s rocks or a dander round the distillery, the moment you enter the Bushmills Inn for a meal and see that fire, you are reassured that the rest of the day is going to be just as joyful, entertaining and authentically du pays, as French regionalists like to say.
There are steaks, burgers and brotchan, prawns, salmon and Clonakilty black pudding, and we put some of these to the test. The burger was fine and the prawns were particularly juicy in their little pots of marie-rose sauce, but hardly unique to Northern Ireland. The Clonakilty black pudding, which is a spectacularly lovely, crumbly affair and in this case was accompanied by a perfectly poached egg and fresh sliced Comber potatoes, somehow disappointed. It was a little dry but then you expect that from black pudding, all the better to be offset by the poached egg’s runny yolk. It came with a couple of lettuce leaves.
I don’t want to be unfair to the Bushmills Inn because this was evidence of fine ingredients, but it may have missed the mark because it looked bare on the plate and didn’t captivate visually. Which just goes to show you how important presentation is after all.
The adviser is currently on a mission to uncover the best steak in the land and she placed this 6oz, chargrilled Ulster sirloin among the top three or four in Northern Ireland. She was not one bit seduced, however, by the big dry piece of bare, unbuttered, toasted soda farl underneath. Why would you do this to a steak that is otherwise spot on? Is it to appear to be more local to the international visitor, to show them something they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the world? Possibly, but the rest of the world would have good reason for avoiding mating the two. It makes as much sense as a boiled potato sandwich. With no butter.
The cullen skink (Dalriada Cullen Skink on the menu — are you getting the Ulster theme? — came as a dry main course rather than a soupy stew. This dish worked very well. The ingredients were top class: natural smoked haddock flaking off into tender chunks to mingle with the creamy sauce and sauteed potatoes with scallions (note to foreigners: that’s our wee word for spring onions) beneath. The poached egg made a repeat appearance and was again perfectly runny.
The dessert menu is the place where you’d expect an Ulster kitchen to excel. And it does. Just as the breads that are brought to you during your starters are fresh and cakey, the desserts are big, generous and gut-bustingly irresistible.
The walnut tart and its rum and raisin ice cream was one of those desserts that would put a dead man on his feet again. The rich moist texture peppered throughout with little bits of walnuts, uplifted by the rum and raisin ice cream and then covered by golden syrup, was joy itself.
A butterscotch fudge sundae also appeared and its chewy honeycomb and butterscotch sauce were a triumph.
The essence of Ulster is hard to put on a plate if you’re not Jenny Bristow and Bushmills Inn is having a decent go at defining it. Its bid to become commercially even more of a success than it already is threatens its simple charms even more than the relatively new housing estate right beside it.
The place is being extended (faux Norman tower and all) and is getting closer and closer to the banks of the mighty river Bush. So at least it seems assured of a secure future. It offers a taste of Ulster but perhaps not as we know it.
Salad of Clonakilty black pudding: £6
Kilhorne bay prawns: £5.95
Dalriada Cullen skink: £11.45
Walnut tart: £5.85
Butterscotch fudge sundae: £4.75