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Joris Minne - Buck's Head

Buck the Trend

By Joris Minne

Restaurant’s old-fashioned approach to food is a great reason to stop in Dundrum

There’s a lot to be said for speed cameras. As a three-pointer, I know the police are serious about nailing even the mildest mannered of road miscreants. Never mind the ‘10% over the speed limit and you’re still ok’ margin they talk about, I’ve been done for less.

But apart from saving lives, cutting your speed has other benefits. One of these is that people on their way to Newcastle from Belfast now slow down going through Dundrum. It used to be the empty, one-street town you flew through to get to Coco’s, the joke shop and the Broadway Cafe for chips and ice cream. It was the last hurdle. Once you’d got through Dundrum you were on the home straight.

But, lo and behold, we are all driving at walking pace nowadays and this means more time spent looking out the car window at everything but the road in front. This is how the Buck’s Head hove into view recently. I had forgotten all about it after having had a meal there possibly 12 years ago. But there it was with its big cut-out stag’s head sign beckoning to travellers.

It’s hard to stop in Dundrum once you’ve got into the southbound rhythm of the traffic and harder still to park, but we managed. A bit like the old westerns where the cowboys tethered their horses to the boardwalk handrail outside the dusty saloon, we were able to cross the road and pull the car up, nose-to, right outside the restaurant.

The Buck’s Head has been well respected for many years. This particular Friday lunch time was busy with local people and the cosy front room restaurant was, well, like somebody’s cosy front room.

Earthy brown tartan patterned carpet to create a hush but not a deathly silence, decent landscapes to remind the diner of what’s outside when the sun shines, and comfortable homey banquettes and country furniture to provide support for those flicking through their Saga holidays brochures (the adviser warns that older people are now officially designated within an EU directive as ‘over-50s’) while waiting for the soup of the day.

It’s proper, old-fashioned catering in this bit of the Buck’s Head that extends around the back into another cooler and more youthful restaurant which does great weekend trade. Considering Dundrum’s position as a village between more famous places, the Buck’s Head is a big component in efforts to make the place a destination in its own right.

After all, there are plenty of place-making features here: where do you think Dundrum Bay oysters and mussels come from? There’s a Mourne Seafood Bar here and rather attractive holiday flats too. These are all helping slow down the traffic and making people sit up and notice the place. And the Buck’s Head is certainly worth noticing.

While it doesn’t say seafood anywhere on the outside of the restaurant, one quick look at the menu quickly displays a sensible approach to local produce. The sea is just across the road and there are oysters, mussels, fish and various simple seafood dishes. The half dozen oysters I ordered while waiting for company were truly zingy, light and delicious. I am getting old and, as an older person, I tend to stick with the saying that you should only eat oysters in a month that has an R in it. This means I wouldn’t go nuts for oysters from next month until September. It’s not that they’ll kill you, far from it. It’s just that the summer months are the spawning season and you might find your raw oysters looking a bit milkier than usual. They just look clearer and taste better the rest of the year. Six of those and a glass of decent Sancerre would be heavenly.

As it happens I had a glass of good sauvignon blanc that I asked the waitress to choose and it worked fine.

If raw oysters are the world’s oldest fast food, then moules mariniere are the cooked equivalent. A big pile of cleaned live mussels thrown in on top of sizzling butter, garlic, parsley and a glass of wine and left to their own devices for five or seven minutes should give you a decent enough moules mariniere.

The Buck’s Head version, however, was a far more sophisticated affair and made for a staggeringly good dish whose broth was light but rich. Some clever work had created something which no one could mistake as a pukka mariniere. But the broth was almost like a Japanese miso soup it was so fine. The mussels may have strayed too long in there as they had shrunk a bit and some had become slightly rubbery, but so good was the complete dish it hardly mattered.

Sticking with the seaside theme, the scampi and chips that arrived was a journey into the unkown. You never order scampi unless someone else recommended it to you earlier. Portaferry Hotel, for instance, offers a scampi that has been pretty much a highlight in the place for years. In the Buck’s Head, however, the scampi was extraordinary. Not overwhelmed by a crunchy coating, nor buried deep in some thick batter, here was a bowl of scampi in which the very light flavours of prawns shone through. The texture was right — soft, very juicy and with a very slight hint of something approaching solidity. It was a generous portion too. The chips were world-beaters, golden and crispy.

My friend Claire, who knows the restaurant well, had a very decent chowder that was thick with fish pieces. Her burger, possibly because we were in such a genteel place, looked almost embarrassingly vulgar. She being of a fine upbringing had no qualms and got stuck in and reported it to be exactly what a burger should be, big, dripping and impossible to eat politely.

I think if Dundrum wants to succeed in its bid to establish its own strong identity, it should look no further than the Buck’s Head. A big 40-foot sign at both ends of the town welcoming you to the Home of Scampi and Chips should do it. It will look a bit better than the car boot sale signs for which the town has now developed such a reputation.

The Bill

Dozen oysters: £6

Moules mariniere: £6.75

Chowder: £5.95

Burger: £10.50

Scampi: £11.90

2 x glasses wine: £6.60

Water: £3.50

2 x coffees: £5

Total: £56.20

Belfast Telegraph


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