Hillsborough. The idyllic village with all the trimmings includes a castle, lake, charming brick houses, an elegant church, mature trees and some nice bars and restaurants.
It's the village that comes into its own in the autumn and winter because it exudes simple, bracing, leaf-kicking joy. There is also something very clean and tidy about it all. It could host an episode of Morse, or Midsomer Murders.
And, like any good mystery, there is a dark presence lurking in the midst of the pleasantness. I'll cut to the chase: it's the Hillside Inn, officer!
This pub with a restaurant at the back should be as good as the rest in the village; it's been there long enough, the bar has the requisite low ceilings, stone flag floors and robust furniture. But the restaurant is charmless.
There are moments of relief and pockets of enjoyment in the restaurant, but these are brief and short-lived because the Hillside kitchen's overall output is not good.
The young serving staff are charming and helpful and try hard to compensate for an appallingly badly lit dining room, which is also dirty. A clinical little annex behind the main dining room hides behind an unlit fire place and tables adorned with empty candle jars make no attempt at creating a welcoming atmosphere.
Wall-mounted green glass lampshades add to the coldness by casting an unpleasant light. It's the opposite of what it should be: intimate, compelling and hospitable.
The dirt on the banquette cushion looks like ground-in food from a generation ago. The advisor and I persevere. There are the day's specials, which include curried parsnip soup (if the kitchen has accepted winter has come early, that fire should be lit as well), pan-seared salmon fillet with “creamy” mash, seasonal greens and a white wine cream sauce, breaded whitebait with hand-cut chips and tartar sauce, or sundried tomatoes, spinach and red onion penne pasta in parmesan cream and toasted garlic slice.
But we have stuck to the main road with honey chilli chicken and smoked haddock Scotch quails eggs to kick things off. The chicken strips are goujons and the “crispy luck boat noodles nest” are neither crispy nor lucky, but soft and soaked in a kind of sweet chilli jam.
The three scotch eggs are better and provide sustenance and flavour. The accompanying greens of asparagus and salad have seen better days, however, the leaves having given up a few hours earlier.
The menu proudly displays the logos in full colour of Hannon Meats, Ewings, Yellow Door, Arnotts, Larousse, Glastry Farm and Comber Potatoes. This is admirable, but it provides evidence of a certain kind of talent which can transform top class raw materials into something best left alone.
A chicken and leek pie is very good served in a small iron skillet and topped with a decent puff pastry hat. A deep creamy interior with generous chunks of tender chicken is full of flavour. But it is accompanied by an inedible dollop of very tired, lumpy mash which looks as appetising as a used bandage. If those are Comber potatoes, I'd ask for my logo to be Tippexed out.
The burger passes the advisor's inspection: dense, good flavours and lively tobacco onions for company.
Desserts of cheesecake and trifle are poor. The trifle suffers from not enough moisture. The sponge fingers have taken on the texture of those mashed potatoes and there is an oddly medicinal quality to the jelly's flavour.
The cheesecake is a deconstructed affair shoved into a glass jar. I quite like the flavour of the cheese paste, but the crumbled digestive biscuit crumbs don't work. It's like eating sand.
The server has inquired how things are a couple of times and has been given a well-mannered, but truthful response. She is visibly concerned and wants to make things better. She comes back having spoken to her supervisor, who has offered tea or coffee on the house. We thank her, decline the kind offer and ask for the bill.
It cannot be easy competing with the Plough or the Parson's Nose, but it feels like the Hillside has given up trying. Which is a shame, because those servers are trying hard to make it work.
Chilli chicken 5.75
Scotch egg 5.95
Chicken pie 11.50
Glass pinot noir 5.50
Sparkling water 2.10