Joris Minne: Ivory Bar and Grill
Wallet-friendly and intimate, this eatery leaves a warm glow
One of the joys of going abroad is eating out in small family-owned restaurants.
From Roscoff harbour on the north coast of Brittany all the way to Nice, Naples or Nerja, you will find an endless supply of these modest little places which rely less on their own community than on passing trade for business to supplement the household income.
Some of them are so simple all that distinguishes them from a private dwelling is a hand-written sign outside the door announcing that lunch is available — you walk in and are served whatever happens to be in the pot that day. Others are little more evolved with a fridge with chilled wine and drinks and perhaps a choice of two starters and mains.
This kind of thing is completely alien to us in Ireland. Sonny McLaughlin's used to be a brilliant bar in Armagh's Thomas Street. The bar was about three feet wide with two stools and a tiny table had been squeezed into the front room of the ancient town-centre house. On the other side of the bar the McLaughlins would be at the table having their tea.
The family pub may still be going strong here but the independent, five-seater café restaurant on the side of the road or city centre with a blackboard announcing three dishes of the day for €12 or whatever is strictly confined to countries south of St George's Channel.
Of course, because they are tiny doesn't mean they are all fabulously quaint and gorgeous. You can be unlucky and hit a bad one. The adviser's dad will never forget the tiny trattoria near Florence which served raw bits of guinea fowl and poorly cooked pasta. (When the woman presented him with the bill or “il conto” the adviser's dad suggested that “il conto” in the kitchen couldn't cook and should get another job.)
But in general, these places are brilliant because they are an extension of family kitchen cooking which, if chefs around the world are to be believed, is what everyone wants to recreate when all is said and done.
Right enough, having lived in France and Spain and visited Italy a few times, I can vouch for the low-risk gamble which involves stopping for lunch at these road and street-side independents.
So how come we don't have anything like that here? There are plenty of roadside pubs which over the years have developed into more corporate-looking places which serve food, such as the King's Head in Dunmurry, the Elk in Dundonald or the Stag's Head in Dundrum.
So discovering the Ivory restaurant in Moira with its owner, the busy bee Cahir Mullan at the door, working the room, taking orders, making sure everything was where it should be, turned out to be a pleasurable blast of European-standard family catering.
The Ivory is no roadside tavern, though. There's no laundry drying over the stove or anything. Rather this is a modern and breezy restaurant with lots of space, booths, free standing tables and posh tiled floors. Yet it retains the quality cachet of having the guy in charge conducting the entire business like an orchestra. It's lovely.
The menu here is not a lesson in ambition, however. Rather, Cahir and his team seek to reassure the punters with prawn cocktails, ribeye steaks and chicken goujons. Any nod to exotica is expressed through the dim sum, bang bang chicken and risotto.
There's not much to say about the quality of the food. There's nothing wrong with any of it and it's enjoyable grub.
The risotto suffered very mildly from a bit of undercooking — a classic trap into which many chefs fall into because of time running out but that did not render it inedible.
More palatable were the roast chicken, a moist, tender and tasty bird which, when served with a selection of fresh spring greens, a bit of salad and a few chips perked up the table no end.
Places like the Ivory usually perform particularly well at dessert. And sure enough, a rhubarb sponge was a surprising delight. For one thing, I had always thought that June/July was far too late to be having rhubarb. I was wrong.
A blend of eye-watering rhubarb tanginess brought under control by custard and sponge, is still, if properly executed, one of the great wonders of Irish cuisine. Here it was exceptional.
The Ivory is well priced and encourages family evenings out. Look upon it as a good beginners' restaurant (and enjoy the wines because at these prices it's hard to stay away).
Prawn cocktail x 2 £6
Dim sum £5
Bang bang chicken £9
Chilli fries x 2 £3
Tobacco onions £3
Kids’ goujons £3.75
Early bird goujons £8.95
Sprite x 2 £1.65
Cotes de Provence £15
50cl bottle red £8