Restaurant review: We take a big bite from Bull & Ram
1 Dromore Street, Ballynahinch, Co. Down. Tel 028 9756 0908
The new Ballynahinch restaurant of Noel Wilson and chef Kelan McMichael sits in the sparkling Edwardian, green and cream tiled former butcher's shop on the corner of Dromore Street in Ballynahinch. It's the kind of space you might expect to see in on-trend areas of London, like Hoxton or Islington. There is nowhere else like it in terms of interiors.
Even as Coulter's butcher's it was pretty outstanding. Ornate tiling, decorative use of bulls' and rams' heads, post-art deco detailing, this was more showbusiness than meat trade.
The restaurant, which revitalised the shop, closed since the late-2000s, has picked up on all the visual cues, highlighting the original interiors and enhancing the space with good lighting to create a handsome dining room at the front and something more softly furnished, refined and traditional at the back - where you can look directly into McMichael's busy kitchen.
Front-of-house staff are particularly impressive. Fiona, formerly of the Primrose, just up the road, is the kind of server who'd get a job in a three-star, no problem; hospitable, discreet, helpful and well-informed.
The menu is super-impressive and features the kind of list of desirables which makes it impossible to choose only one starter. I had to try two: the foraged mushroom soup (McMichael says he gets his mushrooms wherever he can, but usually within a mile of his house) with truffle shavings and the lamb sweetbreads.
The soup was a lesson in flavours and textures. The mix of horse mushrooms and girolles, bound by a creaminess with hints of cumin and the warmth of the truffle shavings on top, is a thigh-slapper packed with wholesome earthiness. Getting it so right requires talent and McMichael has buckets of it.
The sweetbreads were juicy once you cracked through the batter and the accompanying salsa verde and watercress leaves balanced the meats nicely.
We also had some tripe, which comes in little domino-sized blocks to look like tiny fish fingers. They are a bit overwhelmed by the crunchy breadcrumb coatings, but if you concentrate, you can get those deep, horse-stable flavours, which people either love, or loathe.
A big-sectioned bone, displaying spoonfuls of marrow beneath beautifully caramelised onions, delivers the unctuous, slippery, buttery smoothness, perfect for spreading on the accompanying toasted sourdough.
There is a touch of the Fergus Henderson, the east London-based master of meat and offal in Bull & Ram. Tripe, bone marrow, sweetbreads, beef, lamb and pork are the star attractions. But there's more.
From the sea are scallops prepared Rockefeller-style, with creamed spinach, smoked bacon and garlic crumbs and lobster served either as a starter with crayfish, or with chips as a main, and crab.
Bull & Ram's crab on toast is up there with the best in the country right now, as it's largely made of hand-recovered white crab meat as fresh as can be.
However, we're here for the meat and the show rolls on with rabbit, chicken, lamb and burger. And here we run into some disappointment.
The roast lamb and the gravy are outstanding, slow-cooked, melt-in-the-mouth and incredibly fine tasting; but the volumes of mash, cabbage, carrots and Yorkshire pudding kill it. I know we're in Co. Down, where the number one measure of quality occasionally applied is the slap-and-weigh factor, but this is too much.
The rabbit comes deep-fried in thick batter with that salsa verde again. I pick off the batter, which has no flavour, and the meat within is succulent, moist and tasty. I would have preferred a mustard-based sauce with this, rather than salsa verde, but only because it was its second time around.
The herb-fried chicken is not as expected. I'm not entirely sure why we didn't see the Kentucky-style southern fried chicken in batter coming.
The term 'herb-fried' conjured up images of a French country-style quarter chicken in a pan with a little butter, white wine, lemon and possibly tarragon.
There was nothing wrong with the battered version, but I've had more interesting, spicier and more herby versions of this in chip shops and takeaways.
Bull & Ram is a very good restaurant, offering high quality at remarkably good prices, but you need to choose carefully and ask lots of questions.
If I had to do it again, I'd make sure I didn't have so many battered things with salsa verde.
Lobster cocktail £9.95
Crab on toast £6.95
Fried chicken £13.95
Roast lamb £15.95
Garlic mushrooms £3.50
Carafe Alvarinho £17.50
Diet Coke £1.90
Sparkling water x 3£10.50