When God created Hillsborough he had winter in mind. Not just any winter but a Charles Dickensy kind of vibe — all Georgian windows, hunting scenes, snowscapes and bare beech trees.
He had considered his merchandising, because the images of a Victorian winter wonderland would become engrained in our psyche by appearing on chocolate box lids, table mats and framed prints all over the country. They would become as much a part of Christmas as Midnight Mass.
Hillsborough would define the perfect Ulster Christmas and New Year holidays. It would be extremely photogenic thanks to its hilly little streets, graceful castle, elegant Gothic revival church (St Malachy’s) at the end of an impossibly romantic drive, a magical royal residence, a market hall and a couple of inns.
And so it came to pass that Hillsborough became the capital of Christmas, but only lately. Up until the end of the Troubles, entering Hillsborough was as demanding as getting through customs at JFK in New York.
But how glad we should be that the snowy, frosty prettiness of the place is now open to everyone. And one place everyone should consider visiting in the town is The Parson’s Nose, the bar restaurant co-created by Balloo genius Danny Millar.
Formerly home to the Marquis of Downshire pub, The Parson’s Nose is the equivalent of three pallet loads of theatrical setting specifically designed to stage the classic olde inn scene. The low street building with its accompanying arch — you can almost hear the echoing horses’ hooves coming home after a long day delivering gifts to the poor and destitute in the outlying tenant holdings — greets you with one of the most attractive pub signs you’ll see in the north. The magnificent portrait of a 19th-century parson looking down his well-developed kneb has been hung from the traditional pub signpole outside. He looks distinctly unimpressed and may act as a deterrent to some of the more sensitive and guilty-conscienced diners and drinkers.
Through the little front door and past the roaring fire around which a few bar tables beckon, you enter a strange but seductive and compelling world of stag’s heads, wood-carved ornamentation, beams, vaulted ceilings and a million little Christmas lights. There are stairs down to an open bar and up another flight to a series of large and comfortable dining rooms. I got the impression at one stage of having become trapped in one of those brain teaser pictures in which staircases are entwined so as to be leading upstairs and downstairs simultaneously.
The magic of the place is overwhelming. It’s exactly what you would want in a place in Hillsborough — a corner of a Hollywood costume drama you can call your own for a few hours. The servers are engaging and discreet, which blows away any suspicions that we have entered a theme park run by elves. They are the opposite of elves, dressed in black, friendly (and all surprisingly good-looking — is this a recruitment stipulation?) and know their subject.
Menus arrive and turn out to be so well judged as to cause complete confusion — in a good way. Everything is desirable: smoked haddock and bacon chowder; chicken liver parfait with red onion marmalade and toasted brioche; Strangford Lough prawn risotto with gremolata; crispy organic Lisarra duck confit with ginger spiced plums ... I ordered the twice-baked Cashel blue cheese soufflé with beetroot and walnut vinaigrette — but it wasn’t on, the server said. Oysters from Dundrum instead were good, but warm. A bit of ice on the plate would have helped keep them cool, although I debated whether or not the flavours were actually more pronounced at room temperature.
The adviser had Strangford Lough crab cakes with avocado and tomato salsa with crab mayo. These crispy big balls had a crust-like exterior and the meat inside was sea-breeze salty with slight Thai-influenced flavours. The hard casing was full of flavour and beautifully mixed with the cakey interior and lush salsa and mayo.
Danny Millar has made a name for himself on the telly and one of his achievements is his appearance on the hugely competitive Great British Menu programme. One of Millar’s on-screen glories was his slow-cooked Dexter beef shin, oyster and stout pie with champ and local vegetables. As it’s on The Parson’s Nose menu, I couldn’t go past it. It was very good, but not great. For one thing the generously sized pie was lukewarm at best. The classic crust was slightly damp and the flakiness had subdued. Nonetheless, the filling was outstanding — rich, deep and packed in. The oysters were not overwhelmed by the gravy and the beef was melt-in-the-mouth tender. The accompanying champ and vegetables were text book and incredibly true to their flavours — the roast parsnip, carrots and Brussels sprouts were freshly done and still sweet and bitter in the right places.
The adviser’s Portavogie haddock with mushy peas and chips was as good as this dish can ever be. Solid nourishment like this is very much in keeping with the winter theme but fish and chips have to be spectacularly brilliant to make a difference. When the chips are described as triple-cooked, expectations rise markedly — only this time we were mildly disappointed. The chips were fine, but not crystal-like on the outside as triple-cooked might imply.
The roast chicken breast enjoyed by small children and old people was, however, stellar. Moist, juicy, tender and light, this chicken tasted like no other, and having found it in the kids’ menu made it all the more wonderful.
The Parson’s Nose will give the other restaurant farther up the street a decent run. To have two excellent restaurants in a tiny film-set of a town like Hillsborough is a blessing. But great things are expected from Danny Millar so, while this review was conducted only four weeks after opening and time must be allowed to overcome gremlins and teething problems, a further visit will involve scouting for a soufflé, chilled oysters, the crunch of triple-cooked chips and warmer pie.
Crab cakes £5.50
Oysters (6) £6.95
Kids’ Roast chicken £3.95
Dexter burger £9.50
GBM pie £12.95
Seasonal veg £3.50
Chocolate tart £4.50
Sticky toffee pud x 2 £9
Glass of wine x 3 £11.75
Pint Belfast lager £3.20
Fanta x 2 £3
Large bottle of water £2.95