Joris Minne: Enigma
The well-heeled Hilarys of Holywood expect something special when they dine out, and this respected eatery ticks all the boxes
Holywood, Co Down. The town with its own accent (pronounced: ex-sent) is a lovely little community of aspiring and arrived done-wells. Comedian Nuala McKeever immortalised them in her character, Hilary Hamilton.
I do not mock the Hilarys of Holywood, because they are attractive, they stand their ground in the face of bad manners, poor service and questionable workmanship (they're always getting their kitchens done) and they enjoy a drink and a laugh.
They have a decent choice of places to gather for lunch and dinner and only go into Belfast when the sales are on in Bedeck. And when they get older, they go to Enigma, the restaurant in Sullivan Place.
Only in Holywood would the name Enigma be used without irony for a business which serves food. Naturally, it was closed the evening we turned up (without checking first, and washed up instead in Ballyholme's Jamaica Inn). Two Saturday nights ago I tried my luck again and phoned for a late table.
Enigma was packed and there was only room left in the bar area. But the woman in charge was so apologetic about having to put us there rather than in the main room, I started to wonder if class distinction in Holywood was still something people here take seriously. I think she had judged that we belonged to the class who should not be sitting in an ante room. But the adviser made soothing noises, this was fine, we made a late booking, sure, aren't we lucky we got a table at all, ha ha ha.
And all was well. In the next 20 minutes, as people piled in and out (we noticed that many were of a certain age) the manageress greeted them all like old friends and clucked over them asking about mutual acquaintances, taking their coats and generally being a gold-standard host.
No wonder the place was packed. With a welcome like this, you'd never want to leave.
Her staff are as hospitable although in a less assertive way, the way perhaps a good server should be: attentive and helpful but not effusive.
And as various dishes were brought out it became equally clear that while the food is above average, it was the mood that made it. There were good cocktails (really) well priced wines (although steer clear of the Bouvet French sparkling wine which, at £10.25 for a quarter bottle, is too expensive) and a menu to cause excitement: goats' cheese dumplings with squash and sage beignets, smoked mackerel, beetroot, apple and vanilla jam and horseradish potato salad and confit of duck with parsnip tartlet and soused red cabbage among the starters.
The pork belly pave comes with celeriac puree and black pudding bon bons. I'll take black pudding any way at all, fried roundels, mushy or in stuffings, but this deep fried in breadcrumbs approach seemed risky with something so dry and heavy. Yet it worked well with the juicy, salty and crispy pork belly. The celeriac puree gave enough sweetness to balance the whole thing.
There was a good salade Nicoise with tuna, seabass with mustard mash and a prawn risotto which was overflowing with juicy big langoustines. The confit of duck with that parsnip tarte brought calm and stillness to the blustery night. These are the kind of dishes which offer more comfort than adventure and they tell us that Enigma is about the former. Despite its avant-garde exterior, the interior is less cutting edge but funky enough to signal some acknowledgement to modern trends. And the clients here want that rather than chintz because even if they are of an age, they are spirited.
Enigma is the perfect restaurant for this market. It has put the "special" back into a special evening or meal out. There were lots of family parties, groups of four and six friends and an unobtrusive rhythm of busy server action as quick responses to orders came flying.
This is a neighbourhood restaurant but not just for the neighbours. You should try a Hilary night here. You'll be glad you did. Pip pip!
Goats' cheese £5.50
Pork belly £5.50
Prawn risotto £16.50
Glass Bouvet £10.25
Sauvignon blanc bottle £22
2 Sullivan Place, Holywood Co Down
Tel: 028 9042 6111