Joris Minne: The Cultra Inn
Although it sits in the shadow of the illustrious Culloden Hotel, The Cultra Inn has carved out its own niche as a champion of tasty NI produce
The Cultra Inn sits in the grounds of the Culloden Hotel, a shy little daisy in the shade of its glamorous big sister. And while the Culloden commands all the glory and celebrity status of a five star, lough-shore luxury resort and spa, the Cultra Inn trades on a more modest and humble footing as a bar and bistro with rustic timbers and a homely feel. As far as that can possibly work in Cultra, the most expensive piece of real estate outside Belfast's Malone Park.
For the residents of Cultra, a trip to the Inn is where you go if you want to get down and dirty with working-class types such as dentists, lawyers and accountants.
The Cultra Inn does what it says on the tin: simple and wholesome meals made from locally produced, caught and reared meat, fish and vegetables served in comfortable, cosy surroundings in a mood which is part heart-of-the-forest woodland retreat, part carpenter's shed and, with that cute little bell tower, part north Antrim rural church.
The menu reads like a catalogue of quality Northern Ireland produce: the lentil and bacon soup is served with Fivemiletown cheese and onion scone, the chowder comes in a bowl with a Belfast bap or in a cup with an Irwin's Mini Nutty Crust loaf, and the roasted field mushrooms are from Tyrone and play merrily with their middle eastern and southern European accompaniments halloumi and pesto mayonnaise and rocket salad.
A recent visit on invitation by the Hastings Group which owns Cultra Inn revealed all of this and much more and the distinct and lasting impression was that the game has been firmly upped and the local produce is getting a serious top billing by the country's biggest hotel company.
And while you can't say that everything that is local is brilliant – this year, Wilson's Country Rooster potatoes have been consistently disappointing, local lamb is on a par with New Zealand imports when it should be superior, and tomatoes are more often than not weak -flavoured and insipid – a lot of it is good quality.
Carnbrooke's Dexter beef burger at the Cultra Inn, for instance, is a monument to the art form. Here is a great, dense, juicy burger made from Dexters' dark meat served on a focaccia roll with lettuce, tomato, red onion marmalade and chips. With the optional addition of a slice of the Fivemiletown oak smoked cheddar or Moyallon dry cure bacon, the burger becomes something memorable.
The daube of beef is from a Glenarm Shorthorn, the speciality breed favoured by Hannan Meats, and it is tremendously deep in flavour.
One particular dish which shows the northern culinary register is starting to look mature is the chicken fillet. Chicken from Crossgar has long been recognised as reliable and well flavoured and while fillet is not my first choice (more of a thigh and wing man myself) this one comes stuffed with Gracehill black pudding and is wrapped in dry cured bacon. The creamed leeks are grown a few miles down the road near Comber and the croquettes are made with champ, naturally.
And if you thought that such dedication to local produce might limit the choice of dishes and make it all a bit samey, there are some surprises such as Co Antrim beetroot and chilli risotto with marinated feta cheese, watercress and garlic bread and a Thai green curry. (I don't think the basmati rice which comes with it is from local paddy fields, but I'd rather see the sticky rice nonetheless!)
Desserts keep up the theme and here again are familiar names such as Glastry Farm ice cream. The Cultra Inn has come up with a Glastry Farm Slider, which is a layered ice-cream terrine made with "heavenly chocolate, yellowman and lavender and raspberry" on a light vanilla sponge base, with a berry compote.
On the cheese board is a Kearney blue which actually stands up well to comparisons with more established Stiltons and Bleue d'Auvergnes. It's creamier and lighter as opposed to dry, salty and crumbly, but there is definitely a place for it.
It might sound from this list of locals that it's all getting a bit leprechauns and fairy trees but it isn't. Hastings is bringing in the mainstream products which are not made by international food companies, which employ local people and whose aims are to produce great quality.
For this alone, they should be given a collective pat on the back. But the bonus is that the dishes made from the stuff are actually wonderful.
Seafood chowder £8
Daube of beef £16
Pear and blackberry crumble £5
Bangor Road, Holywood, BT18 0EX
Tel: 028 9042 5840