How this genteel pub-restaurant goes some way towards repairing Ballymena’s tarnished image.
Recently Ballymena was crowned ASBO capital of the north with an anti-social citizenry count amounting to half the entire country’s population of baddies. Forget the rat-infested favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the gangland wars of Watts in Los Angeles and the child-kidnap zones of Islamabad — Ballymena’s ASBO culture was plunging the Antrim town’s reputation much farther down the toilet.
So it was a natural choice for the next restaurant review. Where do thugs and their molls have lunch? What do armies of drug-addled muggers eat? And is there a criminal diet?
On the day of the announcement I walked up and down the town after having spent a good half hour looking for a parking space. The town was bunged not with rioting, wild-eyed youths but with shoppers. I saw plenty of cafes and restaurants that looked more than decent. After checking with two senior Ballymena folk, a man who owns a shopping centre and another who edits the biggest newspaper in the area, I settled on The Grouse in the town centre’s Ballymoney Street.
I could have gone to the equally commended Montgomery’s, whose department store boasts an upstairs restaurant cafe “to rival Fulton’s”, an award-winning chippie called the Fish & Chicken and a series of attractive street cafes including Nobel’s and the Olive Tree.
Being of advanced years, The Grouse held the added attractions of having a fireplace, dark wood panelling, comfortable seats and calm. Not that it’s a place for fogies. There’s something very new-country-chic about the Grouse. The cool wooden blinds visible in the windows tell the tale of a light but considered interior design touch. It promises something cosy but fresh inside.
The Grouse sits in a handsome 19th century inn stretching out to constitute one imposing corner of a junction at Ballymoney and Springwell Streets.
A sign on the door says Food Served Daily (not Food Served All Day — there’s a significant bit of class distinction going on here) and a blackboard bears the hastily written chalky details of a couple of the day’s specials.
You walk in through the corner door straight into a very attractive and homely, yet modern and clean bar. Everything about this place is clean and oddly 21st century. It’s a bit like those places in Manhattan that are designed to be ancient yet you know are very comfortable with the fact that the place is new. Companies in England gut 40-year-old Jaguar E-types and various other old motors and put brand new mechanics, brakes, CD players and bluetooth connectivity into them so you get an olde-worlde car with all the attributes and reliability of a new one. They sell like hot cakes. The Grouse is like that.
At the back, behind the bar, is an extensive, clubby restaurant with low lights and a roaring coal fire as you come in. Is this where the criminals are, perhaps? Hiding among the dark oak panelling and high-backed banquettes? All I see is a lot of very unstressed and clearly wealthy older people enjoying a civilised moment over lunch. The only hood here is in the kitchen, over the extractor fan.
Today’s special is smoked haddock with wild garlic butter and shredded crab meat served with champ. What could be better on a blustery spring day? I order this with a house salad on the side.
I smiled as I ate, such was the simple joy of it. The haddock was ok, more salty than tasty, but the real fun was in the champ. This may sound unpleasant but mixing the salad (given plenty of welly with a tangy vinaigrette) with the warm soft champ provided completely sinful and hedonistic pleasure. The salad had been carefully made — finely chopped red onion, mixed leaves and tomatoes — and the champ was alive with butter and scallions. The two together made a brilliant marriage of cold crunchy bitterness and warm, breathy comfort. I made it last for as long as possible, by which time the dish was quite cold.
There are many choices on the Grouse’s menu and I watched volumes of goujons, dips, chips, stews and steaks distributed quietly and without fuss by a pro-team of three servers. It was such a pleasant moment, particularly as the ASBO theme seemed to have receded completely, making way instead for the decent folk of this town to talk among themselves about the price (I think) of stuff at Cuddy’s compared to the Tower Centre in a beautiful, lilting accent that was otherwise utterly impenetrable.
Wanting to stay longer, I ordered the ‘Strawboffee’. I only ordered this so I could write it down and say it out loud. You can’t say ‘strawboffee’ without making a complete ass of yourself and giggling. As you guessed, it was the Ballymena version without the bananas. Described as being made with white chocolate, it was bland and tasted possibly even a bit stale, although the accompanying strawberry ice cream was top class. I got my money’s worth just for the laugh.
Ballymena may be facing up to some of the most dreadful social problems of any country town and as a result may be misrepresented as a ghost town whose streets are under the control of prowling gangs of zombies in a permanent state of aggression. But when the badge of worst town is awarded on the basis of having 20 or so ASBOs, you really ought to put things into perspective.
Ballymena may have its troubles but it also has charm and quality. The Grouse, as solid as Slemish, is a good example of this. It represents an older, more ordered and gentle reality and it also does a very decent lunch.
Special haddock £8.95
Sparkling water £1.75