How this Castledawson gem bucks the trend of mediocre hotel restaurants by serving some amazing seasonal dishes at reasonable prices
The spread of mediocrity is a cancerous growth that decimates individuality, renders the pursuit of happiness pointless and replaces enthusiasm and dedication with heartlessness and indifference. You can see it very evidently in the fields of education, entertainment and hospitality. It’s the kind of phenomenon that, particularly in Britain, has created sink schools, cheap reality TV and Little Chefs (from which, thank the Lord, Northern Ireland is spared).
The hospitality sector has been for far too long associated with mediocrity, with bulk supplies of frozen chips, South American chicken, fish from the Pacific, poor quality meat and veg or, worse still, pre-prepared boil-in-a-bag meals that are served up as home-made, locally produced specialities. It happens more often than you think.
But things have changed dramatically in recent years, with a strong emerging organic food supply, imaginative farming with products such as Lissara duck and Dexter beef appearing on top menus around the country.
A recent development is the growth in excellence in hotel restaurants. I recently sat on a judging panel to which were presented four meals from four hotels. All were top class. The winner, the White Horse in Derry, never used to have a great reputation yet now it’s the best hotel restaurant in Northern Ireland. What’s more, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with straight restaurants anywhere. This is thanks to bold management, imaginative chefs and a joint reaction against the norm — a move away from mediocrity and into the realm of difficult-to-maintain excellence.
Another hotel restaurant turning its back on handy-sized cook-in sauces is The Inn in the heart of Castledawson. This tiny hamlet at the foot of the Sperrins lies off the beaten track in a land your great grandparents would recognise, such have the spoils of development blight been avoided. It is a charming place full of parked tractors and Land Cruisers, hairdressers and an accountancy practice (always a sign of prosperity).
The Inn was a complete revelation. For one thing, Castledawson isn’t even on the road to anywhere. And another thing, Magherafelt had already cornered the market for good bars and restaurants, casting a dark shadow on anything nearby.
But The Inn more than deserves a detour. If ever there were a definition of a destination restaurant, The Inn can claim ownership of the term. There is an air of excellence about the place as soon as you see the imposing Georgian façade on the main street of the village. It is as attractive inside, with modern renditions of ancient spaces, lofty ceilings with modern, blond woodwork, a grand dining room with breath taking views to the Moyola River and snow-covered fields of south County Derry below.
A brisk lunchtime trade adds a buzz to the elegant bar restaurant and a simple menu du jour shows a devotion to local produce.
For starters the choice is between roast quail with bacon and egg soda or a chicken liver parfait with spiced plums and toast. The quail is irresistible, of course, alive or cooked. Small, beautiful and utterly appetising, this pair of quail breasts appears with a crispy skin and two tiny soft-fried eggs. The doll’s house soda in toasted triangles adds to the remarkable Alice in Wonderland scale of this starter. Yet there’s plenty on the plate.
Every bite is a joy. The quail meat is juicy and gamey and the egg yolks are like soft little cloudbursts in your mouth, wetting the dry soda deliciously.
The mains choices are pheasant with roast root vegetables or pan-fried hake with creamed leeks, roast potatoes and prawn cream. The choice is unbearable — if this is what they can do with the quail, imagine what magic might be worked on the hake? Pheasant and hake are in season, what to do?
A flick of the coin results in the pheasant and I am not sorry. Moist, tender, full of flavour, the meat is sinfully pleasurable. You can taste the land it grew and fed on; it’s what the French call terroir. If this is the flavour of the fields around Castledawson, for the bird was locally shot, then Heaven can’t be far away.
A luxury choice of miniature desserts is then brought. A small bowl of Eton mess, another of tiramisu and a third of apple crumble combine to form a holy trinity of sweetness. Each one is very different from the next, but all are just about perfect.
Castledawson is only a few minutes, five at the most, from the main road should you be heading to Derry City from Belfast or vice versa. With prices for lunch ranging from £13 for two courses to £16.50 for three, you will be hard pushed to find better quality or value for money anywhere. But it’s not just the food that makes the detour worth it. There is a timelessness to the place, which in the quiet of winter is at its most expressive.
May be I was lucky, I thought, and hit it on a good day. But it was a week day, it was busy and a few discreet enquiries later revealed that the place has an excellent local reputation. And locals are always the hardest to please.
Three-course lunch: £16.50