A warm welcome, super food and polished service make this Tyrone gastropub the perfect place to banish the winter blues.
Some places are better in certain seasons than others. What could beat lunch in the conservatory of the Manor House on the shores of Lough Erne in the spring time? Summertime meals in the seaside restaurants and cafes of Bangor, Portaferry, Portrush and Newcastle and autumn in the likes of Galgorm or Castledawson, whose country hotels have the most perfect roaring fires and gamey dishes, are irresistible. And contender for king of the winter food palaces, shoulder to shoulder with the Parson’s Nose in Hillsborough, is the Brewer’s House in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone.
Donaghmore is unusually pretty and compact, photogenic like few other northern villages and buried in the heart of farmlands and woods just a few miles west of Dungannon. At the bosom of the village is the stone-built Brewer’s House, full of history and charm and now owned by local publican and restaurateur Kieran McCausland.
While the house has been a fixture for a couple of centuries (the 18th-century building originally belonged to a brewer and had been used as a pub in later years — look out for the great choice of microbrewery beers on draught and bottled), it was recently reinvented as a restaurant of note. One Sunday afternoon, the advisor, two daughters and I were making our way back to Belfast from a family party in Fermanagh the night before and made a small detour to the Brewer’s House for late lunch.
Always a gamble, the unknown and untested Sunday lunch in a country restaurant is frequently disastrous. There are places that ought never to be allowed to open on a Sunday on the grounds that they create more harm than good on the Sabbath. The advisor and I have had our fair share of grey lumpy mash, leathery roast beef and Castrol GTX gravy. Nowadays, you have to come up with quality, freshness, excitement and promises of local produce.
The Brewer’s House is just such a place and when you walk through the tiny front door, there in front of you like a cathedral altar is a big dark wood bar, creaking under the weight of a loaf of bread the size of a single mattress. Around the sides, back and front of the bar are tables filled with happy families and diners who, this being rural Tyrone, pause to check out the new arrivals and then get stuck back into their dinners.
Within seconds a smiling server brings us in and asks us to pick any table we like. We try three of them before settling by the front window on high stools at a bar-height table. We examine the vast loaves on the bar and order some breads and dips while going through the menu. Enough bread to keep a family in sandwiches for a week quickly arrives with butter and some tapenades (I later kept the leftover bread in a bag and was still eating it on the Wednesday).
The menu is a list of familiar faces. There are lots of straightforward but appealing starters: among them creamy smoked chowder, salt and chilli chicken or squid with napa slaw, tea-smoked chicken Caesar salad with soda bread croutons and a ham hock and parsley terrine that comes with home-made piccalilli.
The Strangford mussels are big blubbery yellow things, bursting forth from their sleek black shells, just cooked and bathing happily in salty white wine sauce. The prawn risotto is equally well timed, the plump rice in a rich tomato, chorizo and chilli base.
The mains on a Sunday include some old favourites: pan-fried Glenarm salmon fillet with mussel and leek veloute and Comber potatoes; slow-braised shoulder of Texel lamb with cumin roasted carrots and cabbage; slow-braised Cloughbane steak and black stout pie served with champ and vegetables, and a variety of aged sirloins and rib eyes that are all served with onion rings and pepper sauce.
I can vouch for the onion rings, which are the biggest and least greasy ever served on a Northern Ireland plate, but I also commend the pie that fills your heart and belly with sunshine on a winter’s day. The golden crust and the dark interior are marvellous, timeless and satisfying to all the senses. A Dexter burger with red onion salad is oddly disappointing — the fine flavours of Dexter have been lost through overcooking.
Nonetheless, it’s the kind of menu that leaves you wanting little bits of everything. Thankfully, they have foreseen this by providing a light bites list that includes surprises like salt-cured beef with bread and pickles, baby back ribs and bowls of garlic prawns.
If it gets much colder this winter, we’re heading back, snow chains and all.
Chilli squid £5.95
Prawn risotto £6.95
Kids’ menu £7.95
Dexter burger £8.50
Onion rings £3.95
Small chilli chicken £5.95
Coke x 4 £6.40
Large Perrier £3.80
Pint Copperhead £3.20
Main Street, Donaghmore, Co Tyrone BT70 3HB. Tel: 028 8776 1932.