The kernel of this article was spurred on by a recent food experience that, despite having eaten in pricier spots in the days and week since, cooked and been cooked for, it still lingers in the mind, and in the palate.
Pub food, and in particular good pub snacks, can be a defining characteristic for a decent watering hole. It’s all about doing a couple of things, very well.
We aren’t talking about bistros, or the knife and fork experience here – we’re talking about casual pub food. We’re talking about something which preferably requires a single hand, may have paid a visit to a deep-fat fryer, encased in pastry or breadcrumbed.
I should say that the dish in question which fuelled this was a serving of three, simple, hefty, spherical ham and cheese croquettes. Justin Nicholl’s The Grateful Bread is the operation responsible – they are truly some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of eating.
At The American Bar in Belfast, he’s also breathing local life into London Borough Market classic, Kappacasein’s raclette, served atop baby potatoes with pickles, and toasted cheese sandwich, along with very high-end pies, and sourdough. Everything is fiver, too.
Speaking of pies, we don’t do enough of them here, but they remain something of a pub and sporting institution in England. And when I say pies, I’m speaking of the single serving, single use variety. There’s a time and place for a big whack of something served with the trimmings. Don’t forget about Scotch eggs, too. Some spots have built their reputations on doing that correctly.
Derry’s Pie in the Sky, a bakery which runs pop ups and has recently graced Bullhouse Brewery’s Belfast taproom, does the pie thing right. A steak and stilton is all things rich, umami, sharp and meaty.
Potatoes in their various fried varieties are always a winner. There’s been a tendency towards the less than subtle ‘loaded fries’ of late – something from the so-called ‘dude food’ catalogue. That can get old, quickly. Just keep it simple – the best fries you can possibly muster, and a couple of light toppings. The world can only take so much pulled pork.
Pizza made on site, out of a wood-fired oven, or at least something getting up the required temperatures required, is another welcome offering. The Sunflower’s Boxing Hare has been keeping its clientele fed (and watered) for a number of years, doing just that.
Cheese and meat platters (and their vegetarian and vegan alternatives), when done well, are a perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of rose, a robust rioja, a hefty hopped double IPA or a chunky, rich imperial stout. Keep the ingredients largely local (we’ve some superb cheese and cured meat here).
Burgers certainly have their place if something more hearty is required, but it needs to stand on its own. If it has to be dismantled layer-by-layer in order to be consumed, it’s lost the case.
Keep them affordable, stick to good meat, coarsely ground, with sparse toppings – think the Irish chain Bunsen for a case in point. If you do that in a pub environment, you’re on to a winner.
Of course, there’s the ubiquitous chicken wing. A pub staple, it’s a triumph when executed well and, less so, when it’s not.
The vinegar-based hot wing has become a regular feature of most spots around the region. They should be de-jointed, crisp, often flour-dredged, with a decent and reduced glaze or sauce (thickened or enriched with butter). There are many decent pub offerings, from Northern Lights in Belfast to Kiwi’s in Portrush, but some of the best to be found are not in a bar, but Vietnamese joint Madame Pho, on Botanic Avenue in Belfast.
It’s something of a tough sell, but a couple of fresh Carlingford oysters go very well with a pint of stout. This is only really feasible for a pub which has a good supplier reasonably nearby, and can sell them out each day.
And of course, for something more substantial there are of course great pubs which produce top ‘pub grub’. Often more casual and leaning towards bistro food, they are often a great one-stop-shop option when considering spending an evening out, or a long lunch. Some city spots include The John Hewitt, while The Parson’s Nose in Hillsborough has upped the stakes further still.