Hillyard House, 1-5 Castle Avenue, Castlewellan www.hillyard-house.co.uk
Hotel restaurants used to be the only eateries open on a Sunday in Ireland. Gargantuan and indistinguishable carveries like the mountain ranges in a museum’s model display of historic battles — marble-hard, snow-white bricks of ice cream still linger in childhood memory like an inescapable malevolence, a terror which has left a deep and lifelong prejudice.
They still exist, despite the leaps and bounds made by chefs and restaurateurs across Ireland in the last 20 years. But they are thankfully in decline.
You’d have to travel into the far depths of the country now to find anything resembling the days of Irish catering when food was received, consumed and paid for politely by families too scared to complain. I blame this collective meekness for prolonging our suffering and for allowing unscrupulous hospitality businesses to abuse our silences for so long.
But nowadays, hotel restaurants can offer an experience which is surprising and sometimes even uplifting. Take the Hillyard House Hotel in Castlewellan.
The restaurant runs like clockwork under the direction of young chef Max Buller. It’s Sunday and there is no hint of a carvery anywhere.
I checked first to make sure. Instead, there are two menus: one for that day’s specials including a trout starter and a choice of four sizes (1kg to 2kg) of tomahawk steaks for two.
The other menu features more delicate starters of breaded boilie goat’s cheese with roast beetroot and pickled walnut, cauliflower florets in light batter with teriyaki and scallions and chilli, crispy chilli chicken with miso caramel, roast garlic, scallions and spiced napa slaw and more.
There are three of us, but we have to order four starters as they are all beckoning from the page.
Well-judged (and well-priced, which always helps), balanced and generous, the goat’s cheese and beetroot might sound predictable, but it’s a classic which has been well-executed — and because you see the care with which it has been made and presented, confidence levels rise.
The crispy chilli chicken (right) is well above average with a lovely balance of entertaining heat and spice, tender strips of chicken with a presence and crunchy red cabbage beneath.
I normally stay away from cauliflower (unless it’s cauliflower cheese), but these morsels are addictive with a depth of flavour hard to match.
The trout starter turns out to be a sizeable steak. At the touch of a fork, it flakes into perfectly slippery chunks, the skin crispy and irresistible on a bed of samphire and buttermilk dotted with herb oil.
The advisor and I have made a pact on the 1kg tomahawk from Carnbrooke, the smallest of the four on offer: 1.3kg, 1.7kg and 2kg.
The prices are remarkable at £72, £80, £84, and stopping at £100. Remarkable, because, the 2kg will easily feed four hungry farmers. Seriously.
But a word of warning: the tomahawks, which are cooked medium rare, come with a “choice of two sides, two sauces, two honey roasted veg and two tenderstem broccoli”. The generosity of portions is overwhelming, so if you’re like me and hate waste, just tell them. The staff are charming, committed and keen to please. No amateurs here.
The steak arrives with its caravan of sides like a ceremonial pageant, while the third person’s hake makes its way to the table accompanied by equally impressive backup. We end up with a table creaking under the weight of all this including mash, chips, carrots, parsnips and broccoli.
The wonder of a great tomahawk is the variety of flavours and textures when properly done.
There are burnt bits on the edge of this one bursting with dark beefiness and crunch and then finer, more tender flavours and textures from the silkier and smoother pink meat in the middle. It’s a perfect size for two grubbers.
And that mound of veg turns out to be beautifully done.
A final word for the Guinness pudding with treacle and rum and vanilla ice cream. Keep some space for it.
Max Buller and his team are proof that the bad old country hotel restaurant days are behind us. Thank heavens.
Two-course lunch £25
Tomahawk 1kg £72
Bottle Pinot Noir £30