Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Joris Minne: Dufferin Arms

IN ARMS WAY: The decor at Dufferin Arms is depressingly dreary

How the food at the Dufferin Arms more than makes up for the dismal interior

I was recently banging on about how insignificant the decor of a restaurant should be in terms of a diner’s priorities. I said it should be in third place at least ten furlongs behind food and service when assessing a restaurant. My argument was partly that decor is sometimes used as a weapon of mass confusion by restaurateurs. Some of these restaurants have been designed to lull diners into a sense of atmosphere and mood that deflects attention from the quality of the food and service. Not that any of us smarter types would be fooled by this tactic. Oh no.

Today, however, I kneel before you with my head hung low in shame. How wrong I was. Six of us recently made the trip to Killyleagh County Down, the one on Strangford Lough. This trip provided the damascene moment in which the error of my position on decor and design was abruptly revealed.

But first things first. The Dufferin Arms in Main Street has one of the most atmospheric bars in all Ireland. I defy any of you to name a bar that has a better set of snugs, a more tasteful or extensive collection of behind-the-counter clutter, or a nicer bar tender. It is irresistibly seductive, the kind of place you would want to winter in, to sip Guinness in front of the fire and read Colin Bateman, Conan Doyle and John Le Carre novels until it was time to wake up in spring.

Across the hall from this heavenly bar, however, on the other side of the double-fronted early 19th century little bank building is a dining room whose decor and mood are as conducive to an enjoyable evening as the death of the family pet during X Factor. (There is a restaurant in the basement but because we visited on a Sunday, this was out of bounds and we were sent instead to the dining room).

The three miserable little bulbs in the low-budget, centre-ceiling brass chandelier that was straining to light the room, cast a shadow of deep gloom and coldness across the tables. When we entered, a silent family sat at one table, the younger ones occasionally glancing at the extinguished wood-burning stove for comfort that never came.

We looked at each other and wondered if maybe we shouldn’t come back on a day when the downstairs restaurant is open. It looked so lovely on the website. But before I knew it, we had been shepherded into a booth behind a door beside the ladies’ toilets. A quick word with the server and we were back beside the cold stove, a tea-light for consolation on the two round tables put together for the six of us.

I looked around and up and down and could find very little with which to be happy. The interior design was half-hearted rustic. On the yellowy walls there were framed Guinness ads, poems, songs and a picture of a Labrador puppy. There were also pictures of musicians — this room is actually well known for its great traditional music sessions — a few stuffed animals including an indeterminate black mad-feathered bird that looked like a too-big-to-be true coot, and a mirror above the redundant fireplace.

The lid was down on the piano in another corner of the room and occasional low-level men’s conversations could be heard from the bar. The wind outside blew hard down Main Street and out to the black deep waters of Strangford Lough. It was depressing.

The only thing that could save us now was the menu. And sure enough, as soon as we opened the bar menu passed around by the very efficient server, we thawed. It spoke soft words of comfort, coaxing us to stay and promising that things would indeed get better very soon.

A quick look at what we could have had in the basement restaurant, had we timed it differently, revealed that there were fine things to be enjoyed including lobster and oysters. They might have been absent on this day but spirits were soon up with the arrival of prawn cocktails, mussels in white wine and cream and big fresh sods of wheaten bread. A very good bottle of Languedoc red for less than £14 also helped light the fires of enthusiasm in our little hearts and within 20 minutes we were feeling much better. And then when the mains arrived, we knew everything was going to be just grand.

A golden mountain of hand-cut, irregular chips accompanied everything — unless garlic sautéed potatoes had been ordered. Both were excellent, crispy and fresh. The sautéed potatoes were not overwhelmed by the garlic as is often the case and the little spud cubes had been perfectly crisped.

The onion rings were huge textbook examples of how to get these right and further sides of roasted little hunks of butternut squash, carrot and parsnip were beautifully and simply presented.

I mention the sides first because they are the detail that can make or break a mid-market meal like this.

The adviser’s burger with onions was a vast and generous affair as were the children’s chicken fillets. The venison sausages and champ with onion gravy were just the thing for a night like this, all juicy, warm, creamy and comforting.

The scampi was on the mark too. Shelled langoustines among the shrimp dipped in the lightest tempura-like batter were juicy and soft and not even the smallest ones had gone too long in the pan.

I love the irregularity of these foods in the Dufferin Arms. Chips, scampi, chicken goujons and the like have got a bad name over the years because they are frequently so uniform, so processed and so deep frozen as to be artificial.

Here, there is pride in trying to make popular food as good as it can be.

Michael Deane used to have a TV show in which he showed people how to make the fresh version of the frozen ready meals they had bought in the supermarket. The Dufferin Arms does this magnificently.

One dessert worth looking out for is Michael’s Chocolate and Amaretti cake with ice cream. The server couldn’t tell me who Michael was but his cake was crumbly, fully flavoured and oddly quirky with the Amaretti running through it.

It worked out in the end, despite the initial horror. What the Dufferin Arms needs now is a bit more attention to that dining room. I’d start with a box of matches.

The Bill

Prawn cocktails x 2 £12.50

Mussels £7.75

Burger X 2 £17.50

Scampi £12.95

Venison sausages £8.25

Onion rings £3

Side veg £3

Child’s meal £3.50

Desserts X 5 £24.75

Wine £13.95

Total £107.15

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