If ever a restaurant encapsulated the spirit of Christmas, the postcard-perfect Pheasant is it
Christmas these days needs more than religion to work. The baby Jesus and the crib have been relegated and the essential components of a happy Christmas now include snow, twinkling lights, roaring fireplaces, Slade's It's Christmas, a tree, roast turkey and cards on the mantelpiece.
And if there is to be a Christmas theme park in Ireland it would have to be in Hillsborough, Co Down. When it snows and the snow lies on the hilly little village's toytown rooftops, there is nowhere west of Bethlehem to convey that beloved spirit of Christmas quite like Hillsborough.
There is a moment in history — it could be late Georgian or early Victorian — which is regurgitated every year because it is the accepted encapsulation of the perfect traditional Christmas, unsullied by Mass, service or worship and populated with hunting scenes and Dickensian jolliness.
We desperately want this cosy imagery, particularly at times of social turmoil and economic instability. We feel reassured that everything will be all right so long as the window panes are artificially enhanced with frost-effect spray and the gutters at the front of the house are weighed down with starlight curtains on variable twinkle programme.
Not only is Hillsborough blessed with the perfect seasonal look, it also has some equally atmospheric restaurants and pubs that get the mood so right, you'd think it was a Warner Bros or Disney construct.
The Parson's Nose, for instance, is more seasonal than Harrod's winter window display; the Plough and its many nooks and crannies and the Hillside with its fireplace, drapes and ancient low ceilings are all so steeped in Noel-dom you wonder what they're up to the rest of the year (they're all very busy, since you ask, all of the time).
And in nearby Annahilt, or to be more precise, out in the middle of nowhere, The Pheasant has taken the whole notion one step further and created an inn so compelling I wanted to spend Christmas there myself with the adviser and the chicas.
There's a bar and a ‘diner’ and an upstairs posh restaurant and the whole thing is swathed in wood panelling, rough tile floors, burnt sienna stucco walls with bits of bare stone and brick peeping through here and there in a carefully co-ordinated ageing and distressed look. There are beckoning little booths and carpeted areas and everywhere is warm even on this freezing snowy evening.
Staff are quick to greet and welcome and we are given a four-seater booth, which the smaller daughter announces is where she would like to live the rest of her life. Like a doll's house, the Pheasant has already seduced us, so it hardly matters what the food is like. Yet a scan of the day's menu reveals dishes so appetising, complete confusion descends upon us. There's a huge spectrum of stuff, from deep-fried dinners for children to gamier stuff for the grown-ups. Clearly, The Pheasant is a family place doing something for everyone.
We have a go at as much of the variety as possible. Pheasant, partridge, venison, rabbit, bar food, kids’ menu — we have it all. Some of it is good and some of it excels.
A starter of partridge breast with damson jelly is wonderfully moist, the gaminess is subtle and the sweet jelly just right for the otherwise bare meat.
A wobbling ‘taco tower’ leans to one side under the weight of the melted cheese, lively jalapeno peppers and salsa. This is so good the plate is plundered by all of us, much to the fury of the defenceless 10-year-old who ordered it.
Cheesy garlic bread arrives after the 14-year-old asks for the plain one to be changed — the awkward customer is waited upon with a grace only seen among Ramsay's Best Restaurants winners.
From the bar menu, a chicken wrap arrives. It's so voluminous it would have fed the four of us.
And it comes with a Caesar salad and is storming good value with plenty of comfort for only £6.95.
I ask for the game skewers, which are marked as a starter — could I have these as a main course? No problem. They put two portions on the one dish. This turns out to be very good, if a bit cold. I detect pheasant and rabbit and there's white pudding in there with the mash potatoes. I don't complain because I like it like that, but others might give off and ask for it all to be heated up.
The child's goujons with beans and criss-crosses look sinful, vulgar and irresistible and she comes under renewed attack as we try to sample some of it. Sometimes junk food is just what you need. Talking of which, there was nothing junky.
The adviser says the pheasant breast is too dry but as it comes with a large dollop of red cabbage the balance is almost redressed. The cabbage, however, is too sweet so you end up with two extremes and no middle ground.
Apart from that, The Pheasant as a restaurant over the Christmas period is a must for anyone who enjoys the whole festive thing. The servers are charming and sensitive (although the one spraying tables with disinfectant had no idea how quickly you can go off your food when there is an invasive pong of cleaning fluid) and aim to please.
The Pheasant is a marvel because despite its relatively young age — the house looks like it was built in the ’80s — it's designed to provide old-fashioned comfort in the mood of a bygone era. It succeeds brilliantly at it.
Garlic bread: £3
Scallop and scampi tail: £5.95
Taco tower: £4.25
Game skewers: £8.95
Chicken wrap: £6.95
Chicken goujons: £3.75
Rocket salad: £3.50
Pommes frites: £2.75
Chocolate nemesis: £4.75
Apple crumble: £4.75
Chocolate milkshake: £0.75
Bottle red: £14
Sprite Zero x 2: £3.20
Large Sparkling Water x 2: £6