Joris Minne: Viscount's
Do the time warp at Viscount’s, where there’s a quirky take on interior design
I have always enjoyed the company of oddballs and misfits. Some of my best friends are distinguished amateur organists and I also spend time with politicians, bankers and people who build electricity pylons.
The oddest one of them all is a council dog warden, who has been an avid Warhammer player for 15 years. He has often tried to explain to me the rules and regulations of this popular battle game. But all I can make out is that Warhammer is Byzantine in its complexity and involves tiny armies of metal warriors and mythical beasts fighting it out with medieval-style scythes, bludgeons and maces in swamps darkened by storm clouds and illuminated only by the flashing red eyes of enraged attack horses.
The classic backdrop of Warhammer is a mishmash of ancient battle imagery plucked from various epochs in history. You're as likely to find elements from ancient Athens, the Vikings, early Chinese dynasties and Aztec civilisations all bundled together in an orgy of ritual violence, merciless pillaging and indiscriminate brutality.
It is played by spotty people with bad breath who find it hard to establish meaningful relationships with grown-ups and other humans. They prefer an imaginary world in which they are advisers to Ivan the Terrible, Attila the Hun and the lesser-known Mohawk war leader called Smits the Flemish Bastard (mixed Mohawk and Belgian parentage).
Viscount's restaurant in Dungannon, housed in a converted Victorian church hall, cheerfully mixes its historic eras, too. Here, geographical and historical references are casually thrown together to create a kind of Beowulf mood, although it could just as easily be a Three Musketeers theme.
It's hard to say because there is a time-defying mix of Saxon, Gothic and Baroque features all around. Mock shields and indeterminate coats of arms mounted on the walls vie with armoured suits like those in a Carry On movie set and faux noble standards featuring gold painted griffins and eagles hang proudly from flag holders.
When you look closer among the gilt-framed Baroque mirrors at the mounted deer skulls and realise that these might be souvenirs from a Kenyan or South African safari (and look suspiciously like gemsbok or kudu, not mighty elk or red deer)
you start to realise that what at first might have been a reconstructed scene of early European nobility is, in fact, the work of a deeply relaxed interior designer whose approach to historic authenticity is free and loose.
But look, who am I to question the personal tastes of a restaurant owner when I'm there to taste the food. And anyway, the place is busy, popular and clearly successful, which means it's doing something right.
Viscount's has been a central component in Dungannon's fabric for years and if you ask anybody from the town where they would recommend, the answer will invariably take you to the town's elegant Northland Row.
When you enter Viscount's you will find it completely accessible, welcoming and cheerful. The staff are charming and professional and servers move quickly to find you a table. Almost disappointingly, they are not dressed in Blarney Castle medieval banquet outfits.
Nor does the lunch menu make any naff references to history — there are no ‘The War Lord's Shank’ or ‘My Lady's Blackbird Pie’. The menu is simple, well-varied, business-like, low on cost and big on volume.
A starter of duck confit, for instance, came with champ and is evidence of the size of the appetites in this part of Tyrone. The generous dish was of good quality, and the value for money is unarguable at £4.95.
The duck was beautifully tender and fell off the bone as expected. It was full of flavour yet it failed to impress my knowledgeable companion (whose dad is a professional chef) for not being crispy enough.
The Cajun chicken Caesar salad could have equally stood in as a main course, although the lack of anchovy flavours in the dressing kept it light enough.
A Pad Thai sizzling beef dish was voluminous and attractively presented in its iron skillet. The beef strips were very tasty and tender and fell apart like cake under the knife. The sauce made a good stab at capturing that specific Thai character with lots of ginger and a hint of red curry to produce a sweet, sour and savoury hit. Had the mound of rice accompanying it been the sticky aromatic kind rather than the long-grain style it would have passed muster in any reputable Thai eatery.
When I see the term ‘home-made’ in a restaurant I get agitated. Does this mean it was made in somebody's house rather than in the restaurant? Or does it mean that everything on the menu that isn't described as home-made is out of a packet?
Either way, that's how the lasagne was identified. It came in an oval oven-proof dish under a thick hot golden blanket of melted cheese. Underneath, there was a sheet of pasta and endless depths of minced beef in a tomato sauce. I like lasagne when there's a layer of béchamel sauce but although there was little evidence of this, it was still a great big dish, providing plenty of packing and, ultimately, great value for money at £6.95. It was accompanied by huge crispy chunky chips and would have provided sustenance for a small family.
Desserts included raspberry trifle, which I hadn't seen anywhere for years and which turned out to be cheekily decadent. It came in a glass cup under a thick layer of bland custard. The treasure beneath, however, was rich, red and although it was more ripple than tang, it was definitely raspberry.
There might be a titanic clash of content on the walls of this otherwise beautiful church hall but what Viscount's does very well is serve its customers with good grub at very low prices. We were there on a Thursday lunchtime (it only opens for lunch on Thursdays and Fridays with dinners and weekend carveries) and the place was alive with customers.
Viscount's looks like it will keep going no matter what the recession throws at it, thanks to its loyal clientele and because it serves up what people here want. A trip to Dungannon just would not be the same without a stop at Viscount's, which so valiantly laughs in the face of historic accuracy.
Duck confit: £4.95
Caesar Salad: £4.95
Thai beef: £6.95