Joris Minne: The Villager
This new venture in Crossgar could become a Northern Ireland classic, with a top-quality menu that strikes an exquisite balance
Chef Brian Donaldson and manager Barry Burns are clever restaurateurs – just look at what they achieved in Comber's Sugarcane Café in Comber. Now the duo has signed a deal with Colin Bell, owner of the Villager pub in Crossgar, to run the restaurant upstairs and create a second out-of-town hit.
Donaldson and Burns deserve success. They seem to have struck a seam which is stable and is based on a formula which mixes proximity to Belfast, a prosperous hinterland and a bit of country charm to great effect.
Sugarcane succeeded because the food was more than just robust and wholesome – it had panache and style, great flavours and textures, all while being proudly Ulster-sourced. The well-heeled locals enjoyed and supported Sugarcane's quality and reasonable prices. Also, it was only a few minutes' drive from Belfast, but this still qualified – as Belfast urban folk get nosebleeds once they get past the Belmore Arms, the King's Head or the Elk – as a trip to the country.
The formula is now being applied to The Villager. The once very popular restaurant had lost its way in recent years, but it kicked back to life again last week with a flurry of Donaldson dishes, including a Caesar salad which has no parallel.
The wine list, which comes not from the Jim Nicholson cellars a couple of hundred yards up the road, but from Mark Jefferson, is particularly attractive, with no red or white over £25.
While Jefferson's wines are remarkably well priced and include an excellent Marques de Mundaiz Rioja for £17.95 and a Los Espinos Sauvignon Blanc from Chile for £15.95, you should not go past Colin Bell's shortlist of top Champagnes, which includes a bottle of Bollinger at £55, making it most likely the cheapest Bolli in Ireland.
The restaurant is a comfortable, big split-level room with a bar and curved over ceiling, all very cruise-ship chic, and the floor staff are on the ball, quick to react and charming.
It's a difficult brief for Donaldson, for whom The Villager probably signifies a certain regular trade he would not want to alienate with weird and wonderful dishes. However, he achieves a balance with a menu which reads comfortingly for the conventional and interestingly for the more adventurous.
Take that Caesar salad. The adviser's expertise regarding burgers is unmatched and coming a close second on her list of specialisms is Caesar. She reckoned Donaldson's creation was among the best ever thanks to his wilted cos. Few of us enjoy limp anything, but here was a salad of cos topped with two roundels of chicken breast and bacon and crispy fried anchovies, to wipe the floor with anything which preceded it. This was so good – the adviser only wished there had been more lettuce – you'd be seriously advised to order it if only to enjoy how far you can stretch a concept and still get it bang on right.
The sea bass with potato cake and surf clam and garden pea cream was another big offer with an abundance of sea bass fillets. Not about to disappoint the Crossgar appetites, the potato cake was more of a large croquette, providing plenty of packing.
A summer soup of celeriac and thyme with fresh, cake-like wheaten bread, was fine, although Donaldson later said his order of truffle oil never arrived in time, but would have given the soup an added dimension.
When in Crossgar, do as the Romans do and have chicken, I resolved. But I later wished I'd taken the server's advice and gone for the sirloin. The chorizo, sauvignon cream and crushed sweet potato did their best to enliven the chicken, but flavours from the meat were thin. It had been cooked beautifully moist, but it didn't have the warm, reassuring depth of savoury sweetness as other chicken I've had from Crossgar.
There are lots of other mains to choose from including lamb rump with salsa verde, scallions, Abernethy butter and Parmesan potato, pan-fried pork fillet with a potato, celeriac and garlic bhaji with Armagh cider and wholegrain mustard jus, duck breast with Morello cherry sauce and pomme almonds, which all sound more flavoursome.
A class winner, however, was the apple lasagne. Spiced, steamed apple slices with their skins still on lay in alternate beds in a high-rise of crispy mille-feuille-like pastry and provided a very homey, rustic dessert, manfully helped along by a dollop of home-made brandy ball ice cream.
The Villager is likely to become a Northern Ireland classic if Burns and Donaldson keep up these levels of quality. The pub downstairs, the car park at the back, the ease of access and the general bright mood of the place will make it popular with families and couples as well as business folk in need of discretion and privacy.
Warm Caesar salad £6
Sea bass £13
Apple lasagne £5.25
Bottle Bollinger £55