The catering students of Paula McIntyre at Northern Regional College give a lesson in how to serve some perfectly executed dishes.
Many tourists like to be considered as travellers and adventurers. They don’t like to go with the crowds, want to assimilate as quickly as possible and will shun fellow travellers as soon as the bags appear on the carousel. These travelers are called NATs — not-a-tourist.
And what NATs love the most on their travels is to find the wee hidden spot, the back-alley restaurant, the inn that hasn’t seen a foreigner since the Great War. This spirit of adventure and ability to sniff out the ‘authentic’ heart of the place they are visiting allows them to ridicule and pooh pooh the rest of us who are content with what’s in the brochures and guides. Of course, countless Spanish, Italian and French restaurateurs have copped on to this strange little phenomenon of one-up-manship and take pains to hide themselves in such a way as to be discovered time after time.
I am not a traveller and enjoy being a tourist. Nonetheless, I became a proper if inadvertent traveller in Ballymoney last week when I discovered a secret known only to the north Antrim town’s close-knit community of foodies. And it took some finding, because this place only opens one night a month and doesn’t market itself in any way.
The Northern Regional College Ballymoney campus is home to many secrets. It has a recording studio, broadcast training facilities as good as a commercial broadcaster, a gaming architecture department that is closely monitored by the top bods in Hollywood, California, and a catering school.
Run by the formidable culinary seductress Paula McIntyre — now a broadcast star who combines old-fashioned Ulster grace, good manners and elegance with earthy, robust and rural cooking of the highest calibre — the catering college creates a monthly pop-up restaurant to offer a gourmet dinner for £20 a head.
Having taken two very knowledgeable foodies with me, we had braced ourselves for something in which the hand of McIntyre might have had an influence but would nonetheless be distinctly NVQ3 student standard.
From the moment we entered the modestly decorated but beautifully illuminated red-walled Dunluce Room beside the vast kitchens (pause for a moment and take a look into the kitchen as you walk up the corridor to the Dunluce Room and enjoy the white-coated sweat-lashing and intense sense of purpose all these students display as they dash around shouting “Yes, Chef!” and doing what they’re told) we knew the place meant business. The 42-seater is a-buzz like a Chicago speakeasy of the Twenties. It feels like a club — exclusive and only for the initiated.
Very quickly two student servers (volunteers — the catering students at Ballymoney are strictly kitchen-based) bring delicate little amuses-gueules of pork cheek with apple and celery salad. A menu explains in detail the contents of three starters, mains and desserts. They are ambitious yet not threatening or unknown.
The sugar-cured salmon, cucumber pickle, radish confit, lemon horseradish crema, the cabernet, porcini braised beef shortrib with hand-rolled garganelle pasta and pannagrattato and the duck ham (duck breast cured for a week), duck confit croquette, smoked chestnut and Pedro Ximenez reduction are devised not just to test the students but to impress and entertain the diners.
The duck ham was a balanced yet powerful blend of salty, cured and very tender duck strips cut into tiny little planks a few millimetres thick and covered in a drizzle of the most sinful and dark sherry reduction combined with the croquette, which was beautifully crisp and moist. This was a starter that could have stood up to the closest of professional scrutiny. The other two had the braised beef, which was very Italian in character, with shredded beef in tomato and garlic — dark, luscious and warming.
The following sea bream, lamb and chicken dishes were top class with few clangers. The sea bream — two generous fillets perfectly sealed on both sides — served with crab tortellini, prawn sauce, lemon confit, chorizo and tomato was a triumph. The flavours and textures were sublime, delicate and yet very assertive. The whole dish was absolutely flawless.
The lamb, which came with a marvellous moussaka, was cooked pink and as tender as a baby’s cheek. The crisp filo of the moussaka crackled and splintered to reveal a very well executed mash of slow-cooked, shredded lamb meat within. The harissa was too sweet and should have had a more fiery kick but this is a minor complaint. Possibly the most difficult dish to prepare and very definitely a test for anyone was the glazed chicken wing ballotines that accompanied the roast chicken dish. These were outstanding. Chicken wings are packed with flavours at the best of times, but fiddling around with the bones can be tiresome. All the work was done here and these wings were simply gorgeous.
Side orders of dauphinoise potatoes and mixed vegetables were top quality and put an end to our sweet teeth. A dip into the Balnamore apple mousse and the Aghadowey damson ice cream (the damsons picked by the fair hand of McIntyre herself) proved irresistible, however.
3-course dinnerx 3: £60
(Bring your own wine)