Hillsborough pub’s grub is in a field of its own... just mind that you don’t get lost
Finding the Plough is very easy. You just drive into Hillsborough, head towards the castle and there it is, at the top of the town, across the street from the castle gates. The problem is, once you go inside you may need to phone rescue services to get you out again. The Plough is not just a cosy wee bar anymore with a restaurant out the back. It is a labyrinth of interlocking bars, bistros, staircases, floors, disorientation chambers and time warps. I made the last bit up but, believe me, you could get lost in there for days.
There are comfort zones to acclimatise the unwary as they enter this maze. For instance, on the ground floor is a very traditional bar — the kind you'd expect in a pretty little Georgian village.
Just push open the front door and you enter a non-threatening, familiar and welcoming pub. But there are two front doors and if you go through the wrong one you will find yourself tossed into a vortex and materialise in an unexpectedly modern bar instead.
Ask the bar staff where the restaurant is and they will tell you to go up a couple of staircases, down some corridors and through some rooms and very soon, you will become convinced that you are about to enter a wardrobe and end up in Narnia.
There are many faces to the Plough. There's Bar Retro, The Bistro, The Restaurant and, er, the Bar. There's also some interesting interior design — each part has its own style — which must be to help you navigate your way to the right bit.
We were given a big booth table upstairs opposite a bar and facing away from a window which overlooked the entrance to Hillsborough Castle. It was huge and could have sat eight big farmers.
But it was nonetheless mildly uncomfortable because the narrow space between this table and the bar was a bit of a draughty thoroughfare for those coming and going from the other dining room.
This other dining room (God knows how many there are because we seemed to go through a few of them before getting to this table) lay magically through an arch and looked very Austin Powers. I had hoped we would be accommodated there but because there were five of us and the sexy little booths in the Austin Powers room were too small we were given the big table.
The Plough is one of those places that might confuse you with its many identities but for those who are regulars and have learned how to get around it, it can provide the right environment to suit the mood.
Feeling ditzy? Go upstairs and get groovy with the future Fifties diner feel. Feeling weary and in need of stability? Go to the olde restaurant downstairs (at least, I think that's where it is). Just looking for comfort and no-nonsense? Then there's bound to be a plain room here somewhere.
I was in the mood for Sunday dinner en famille and once I got over the unhappy seating in a room which was neither modern nor olde, things started to look bright and shiny.
Described in the menu as the ‘famous’ prawn cocktail, the starter was exceptionally good with light marie rose sauce covering particularly fresh-tasting prawns and a bed of frisee lettuce and onion salad. The only unnecessary features were strips of crunchy raw green and yellow peppers, which interfered with the otherwise smooth classic.
The Thai prawn skewers, however, were outstanding. Spicy, not overcooked and accompanied by a salad of Chinese leaves, this was a starter I could have had over and over.
The high standards followed through to the main courses with a perfectly roasted half duck, some suckling hog medallions bashed out in the kitchen to a set of wafer thin fillets and roast chicken.
The two smaller musketeers had chicken goujons and chips from the children's menu. I had a bite of one and its spicy batter revealed a good southern-fried style mouthful, crispy, tender and succulent.
The pork medallions, flattened out like outlandishly big pennies on a railway line, came with a rich creamy mushroom sauce and generous slab of champ. The bashing had transformed the meat's texture into a crumbly, melt-in-your mouth delight. All the dishes came with the same vegetables, which included new potatoes, parsnip and green beans. The chips were skinny and crispy and a major hit.
With small girls in tow, the secret to a good outing is haste. The Plough's service was rapid response but not far from rushed.
Friendly and savvy, the waiting staff are keen to please and with this reassurance we thought we'd push on and have dessert. Turkish baklava — a middle-eastern hyper-sweet pastry stuffed with ground pistachio nuts, honey and sweet spices — is a rarity on any menu in Northern Ireland so when it appeared at the Plough, it had to be ordered. It did the job of being sticky and sweet beautifully. A little bowl of home-made pistachio ice cream was too subtle for the powerful honey and filo pastry but it was a fair attempt to provide some balance.
The chocolate nemesis proved insurmountable and beat everyone into submission. Those nemeses are the superheroes of the kitchen, incredibly powerful, very rich and both irresistible and unconquerable at the same time.
It's the right place for a Sunday afternoon. As only part of the Plough is open on Sunday, I think a rematch may be called for to see what the action is like in the restaurant proper. In the meantime, at £16.85 for two courses and under a fiver for desserts, the price is just about right. And if you can find your way in and out of the place unaided, you'll feel you've achieved a lot more than just a decent dinner.
Set menu X 3: £50.85
Children’s X 2: £9.90
Nemesis X 2: £9.90
Hot chocolate: £2.60
Sprite: X 2 £3
Glass red wine: £3.35
Sparkling water: £4.95