Joris Minne: Donegan's, Bangor
This Bangor bar may look like it has seen better days, but it boasts an impressive menu that belies the shabby surroundings
The bar tzar Bill Wolsey, who owns one of the biggest portfolios of pubs, restaurants and hotels in Northern Ireland, can trace the roots of his vast empire back to Bangor. In the heady days of the Sixties and Seventies, Bangor was the seaside resort of choice for the middle classes. Later it became an oasis of relative peace and calm which remained largely immune from the Troubles and as a result of its blessed position was able to offer night time entertainment as Belfast's bars and clubs closed their doors at 6pm for security reasons.
You'll always get a decent pint in a Bill Wolsey bar because he is, first and foremost, a publican. But he wasn't the only Bangor publican with an eye for detail. John Donegan is from another equally impressive hospitality family whose interests include the Royal and Windsor hotels and Donegan's, a bar in the High Street which crossed the road from its original location to its current one some years back.
They keep their glasses chilled, their draft beer pipes clean and their staff exceptionally well trained. Even if you avoid the bar altogether and go upstairs to the restaurant, any drinks orders will be delivered from the bar. Which is why I had a nice pint of Smithwicks IPA as an aperitif.
Donegan's is a pub with a restaurant on the first floor and it also serves food in the bar. It serves proper pub grub which is wholesome and served in volumes.
And when you see the word wholesome, alarm bells should ring because this usually means rustic and uncomfortable surroundings. And Donegan's restaurant has both by the bucket load.
Donegan's refers to the place as "A taste of the country in the heart of the town." This should really say: "A hovel".
The restaurant at the top of the stairs looks like the forgotten attic of an edge-of-town second hand furniture charity warehouse which might export stained three-piece suites to orphanages in eastern Bulgaria.
The intention was possibly to recreate an Irish bar-cum-front room atmosphere but either the curtains have been there too long or somebody has stolen half the lights. It is a mournful place with poor lighting rendered all the more miserable at this time of year by a few sad Christmas decorations. Only someone with poor eyesight or a regular customer who has been going there for 30 years would fail to see how unappealing the room is.
Yet despite this visual misery, the mood is quickly uplifted thanks to servers of a certain vintage who know their onions, are fast on their feet and are serious when they ask you if everything's ok. And yes, everything is ok. In fact it's better than ok. For a start, once your eyes can adjust to the patchy lighting, there's a great menu which promises comfort and joy: half roast chicken, slow roasted silverside with Yorkshire pudding, Caribbean chicken curry, Cajun style surf 'n' turf and a carpetbagger steak, a dish I haven't seen this side of the Atlantic in 20 years (it's a bit like the calzone pizza but using an end cut steak, folded over and stuffed, in this case, with a bacon, mushroom and onion duxelle in a mushroom sauce).
There is a party of 19 in for their Christmas dinner and we check this menu out too: all the classics are present and correct.
As drinks are brought, the poor surroundings begin to soften, the charm and attention of the two servers win us over entirely and the food of chef Paul Gray turns out to be more than just wholesome.
A dish of quality prawn risotto is tarted up with a little high-rise construction of tempura-coated crispy leek strings. These are wonderful and surprising and while the match between the soft, creamy risotto and the crispy tempura might jar for some, the advisor and I nod in silent and whole-hearted approval.
The half chicken is underpinned by a good carrot and parsnip mash, slice of crisp bacon and plenty of deeply flavoured gravy. The chicken itself lacks that moist and meaty taste but the skin is crisped and, well, never mind that, look at the volume.
A gratin of scampi is very good with all the cheesy, briney flavours you expect from a seaside dish.
A side order worth travelling to Bangor for is the Mexican potatoes: little Comber roasties drowned in a sweet and spiced chilli sauce were better than any patatas bravas I've had.
The hovel may be uncomfortable but it's warm and there are no draughts – Donegan's got the rest of it right.
Garlic prawns £5.25
Mushroom crostini £4.95
Prawn risotto x 3 £6.50
Scampi gratin £14.95
Lemon and chilli chicken £11.95
Half roast chicken x 2 £21.90
Wine glass x 2 £8.60
Pint Smithwicks IPA £3.45
Cokes x 2 £3.60
Desserts x 3 £12.75
37 High Street, Bangor, Co Down BT20 5BE.
Tel: 028 9146 3928