The decor’s a little on the brash side, but this Saintfield gem serves up a little bit of heaven
The worst kind of nouveau riche is the made-good farmer who discovers vast reserves of natural gas beneath his dirt-poor Donegal farm and builds lots of lovely bungalows with sea views to sell at stupid prices to northerners. The hillbilly will head straight to the Mercedes dealership to buy the car with the most exhaust pipes, his own bungalow will be extended to include a large scenic window through which to gaze adoringly at his new Scania 142 tipper parked outside and there will be a gurgling water feature in the hall.
Bulgarian gangster ‘biznismen’ can do the nouveau-riche tastelessness even better and will nip into Tzum in downtown Sofia to stock up on gold taps and big televisions but they’ll also invest in a stable of fighting cocks, some military-grade weaponry and barrowloads of chunky gold jewellery to complete the look of success.
Restauraters are not immune to a touch of expensive bad taste. I hope Barnaby’s near Ballyclare will forgive me for citing it as an example. The food and service in Barnaby’s are exemplary, but the owners must have more money than sense to have decorated it that way. Dear-but-poor taste blights many hotel restaurants across the nation and we can see how tempting it must be for an owner whose place has performed well over the years and made money to now turn his or her hand at last to a bit of creativity away from the till.
The owners of the White Horse Inn in Saintfield must have gone through a similar period of temptation. Saintfield still has shops with signs that say ‘Draper’ and ‘Ladies’ Fashions’, so you can see how conservative the White Horse Inn might have had to be in order to fit in. Yet recently the shockingly modern words ‘bar and bistro’ were added to the exterior signage, sending a distinct signal to the urbanites in Belfast that it was ok to go there.
It was broadcasting golden boy John Toal of the BBC’s Saturday Magazine programme who suggested I go there, and for this alone I am indebted to him. As it turns out, the White Horse Inn Bar and Bistro is an excellent restaurant in every sense of the word.
The service is informed, friendly and attentive. The farmhouse mood of the place is intact largely thanks to a team of cheerfully rustic customers who would earn a fortune in Hollywood as bar-room extras. There is live entertainment of a kind that includes a band called The Fridays (October 30) but happily there was nothing but the sound of 50 contented conversations in the place this evening. The simple decor says all the right things: country, cosy, and clean.
The six of us were handed menus that are printed on one sheet of paper. We also got a brief but interesting wine list. Not too many questions or decisions were being asked of the diner as a result.
The menu promised much and I wondered if the delivery could match it. With one simple ingredient for instance, The White Horse kitchen can come up with spiced crispy prawns with mango salsa and garlic aioli, crab and prawn cocktail with avocado purée and White Horse wheaten, and garlic cream prawns with peas and scallions — how many ways can you prepare and present prawns? Ask the White Horse, because each one of the three ways we tried was out of this world. Fresh, plentiful and joyfully appetising — just the thing a starter should be.
But Lord bless us for what we were about to receive, as the main courses were even more exciting. There was pork fillet in a mushroom and cream sauce stabilised with lashings of burned-off brandy with champ. Marinated lamb singing with flavour was a generous double cut of fillet as tender as cake. Cracked, crushed, champed and chipped potatoes were as tasty as if they had been gathered from the dappled drumlins of Down that very afternoon. There are also burgers and chicken dishes, scampi and pan-fried cod and other bits and pieces to broaden the appeal across the generations.
Getting guidance from the server was a joy — she was knowledgeable and just on the right side of opinionated. She knew almost every detail of every dish, including the desserts, and shared the information enthusiastically.
A sizeable vegetarian list of options was further evidence of how much has changed. Buttered courgette, pea and scallion risotto and Parmesan cheese, creamy veg curry and wild rice, spicy beanburger with cheddar, chilli jam, chive sour cream and chips and tagliatelle with basil pesto, roast tomato sauce and goat’s cheese with pine nuts all sounded good to me.
The White Horse does things beautifully. There is attention to detail and maintaining that relaxed air reminds me of Dolly Parton’s honest assessment: It costs a lot of money to look this cheap, honey. It’s exactly what restaurateurs should be doing: working hard to create a sanctuary, a place of enjoyment, an escape.
Crab & prawn x 2: £9.90
Garlic prawns: £4.95
Spiced crispy prawns x 2: £11
Chicken goujons: £7.55
Pork medallions x 2: £19.90
Ice cream: £2.50
Wine x 2 bottles: £28.98