Restaurant review: The Primrose Bar in Ballynahinch
30 Main Street, Ballynahinch. Tel: 028 9756 3177
There have been rumblings for some months now in Ballynahinch, Co Down. Ballynahinch has all the solid charms of a rural Ulster market town and is known to thousands of us who negotiate its windy streets as we hurry to or back from a day in the Mournes or on the beaches in Murlough and Newcastle. But until the rumours of a new restaurant opening started, it was never a town we would associate with eating out.
I asked around, heard some unsubstantiated reports about the owners of three other restaurants in the county showing interest in a former butcher's shop; a local solicitor confirmed this but the mystery has still not been resolved. During my fruitless researches I discovered something else. The recently refurbished Primrose Bar in the heart of the town.
A return visit with reinforcements - there were five of us - proved the refurb wasn't just cosmetic.
The Primrose Bar has been in the town for as long as I can remember driving past it. I had a pint in it once back in the early Nineties but it wasn't memorable.
The latest visit was. The bar is still there and there's a telly and guys drinking pints. But all around are cosy big booths and country-livin' stripped wood and upholstered furniture. It's very Ulster, warm and welcoming. And then there's Pamela Gillespie, the smiling manager greeting people and fussing gently over them at the door.
It's a proper pub with a proper pub menu, none of your incomprehensible gastropubbery here. There's even deep-fried brie, there, bold as brass on the menu, in case you were in any doubt. But do not be body-swerved by this, the garlic mushrooms, the crispy chicken goujons or the innovative cheesy garlic wheaten bread, because the food in here is good. You need only look a little closer to find the hot smoked mackerel fillets with poached egg on top, the pale smoked haddock with bacon and cheese mash with leek and cream sauce or the rib-eye from Vincent Doran's butchers in nearby Lisburn (yours for £20 and comes with your choice of side and a sauce).
We pile into the booth, which could hold at least two more. The light from the Main Street facing window is bright and everyone's happy. There is a sense of occasion. Yet I remind myself, it's just the Primrose in Ballynahinch, about 20 minutes from where we live.
But it could be anywhere in Ireland: it has that hospitable warmth and comfort, an immediate sense of familiarity and the confidence of a place which knows its beers are chilled, its pipes are clean and the kitchen can be relied upon not to burn the soup.
Starters of breads, soup, mackerel and those deep-fried brie wedges (the teen had never tried them so we insisted it was a rite of passage that could no longer be delayed) were promptly delivered and demolished. The one thing to remember when you go into the country to eat is to not eat for two days beforehand. If you do you'll never have a big enough appetite to see it through to the end.
That's not to say that the volumes overwhelmed the quality. The mackerel fillets were fine and salty, their briny tang softened by the warm, free-flowing egg yolk. Beneath it all lay a large salad with mustard seed dressing: not the ideal partner but lush and crunchy all the same.
The breads, an assortment of wheatens, focaccias and other bobs could have fed a family. All were decent and freshly made. The spicy parsnip soup did the job, too, and came with two breezeblocks of wheaten.
Pamela was soon back with beef and crispy chicken burgers, monkfish, McCartney's chilli sausage and that rib-eye. Again, the volumes were daunting but we sensed the challenge had been thrown down at the feet of the townies and we had to get through it. Which we did: never underestimate the advisor's capacity, not that of her mother, nor indeed those of her daughters.
The highlights included a perfectly done rib-eye that had a broad surface area and was cut thin. Great flavours and textures came through thanks to plenty of resting time. Accompanying the steak were three onion rings, which normally don't do much for me. These, however, were worth a return trip: light, crispy, not a hint of oil and plenty of fat onion inside.
The monkfish might have done with a few minutes less in the heat but that's the great thing about this fish, it's very forgiving and doesn't give up its flavours easily.
The Primrose is a very pleasant surprise and makes for a great end-of-day trip to the seaside or the mountains. Until that other place opens, it's the only show in town.
Brie wedges £7.00
Goats cheese salad £7.00
McCartneys sausage £10.00
Classic burger £10.00
Chicken burger £10.00
Glass shiraz £5.85
Glass sauv blanc £5.50
Sparkling water £2.15