Restaurant review: Hara - three cheers for new restaurant's Sunday offering
16 Lisburn Street, Hillsborough, Co Down. Tel: 028 7116 1467
Hillsborough, Northern Ireland's most desirable village, is a perfect picture postcard kind of place. You might think you were in a small English market town in the Cotswolds such is the tidiness and cleanliness of its hilly little streets, but its heritage is as Irish as Dingle.
The first thing those Hills did when they were given thousands of acres of land back in Elizabethan times in thanks for their services to the Crown was to marry into Sorley Boy McDonnell's family, thereby instantly granting them EU citizenship, sorry, I meant, settled status in Ireland.
Good agricultural land, and therefore good food, has always been one of Hillsborough's features. As a stop-off on the main road between Belfast and Dublin, there is a tradition of coaching inns and hospitality here.
Continuing the tradition, the Parson's Nose, the Pheasant and the Hillside have been providing pints and dinners for decades. Now there is a fourth player, Hara.
Hara replaces Meet & Thyme, a decent restaurant which made itself known but, sadly, didn't last. Andrew Turne, formerly of Chapter One in Dublin, and his partner, Roz Allen, have taken over, and the restaurant is transformed into something entirely more upmarket yet paradoxically and joyfully less expensive. Three of us took on three courses at a remarkable £22 each earlier this week and came away not only sated but impressed and charmed.
Hara blends into the Hillsborough scene perfectly. The hipster green door and windows, the plain and stylish interior and the warmth of the dining room are instantly compelling and welcoming. Some additional table lights might help the mood a little, especially half way down the long dining room where the tables are in a slightly darker zone. The big broad-view windows at the back let plenty of light in.
It's a Sunday and there is an on-trend set roast menu which requires the table to eat collectively at £25 per person. It features a dazzling array of small plates, including Kilkeel crab and celeriac salad with pickled dulse, pumpkin and sunflower seed wheaten with smoked salt butter, durrus puffs with onion marmalade, and house-cured beef with Collea and rosemary salt. This week it was roast loin of pork served with poached quince, parsnips, sage and onion stuffing and creamed cabbage. For dessert, there was pear and blackcurrant cobbler with honey ice cream.
Two advisers, including herself, are not fans of the pig, regrettably, so we reach for the carte (two courses for £19 or three for £22). Here be all sorts of lovely alternatives. And as they flick from wanting cauliflower soup with lemon and golden raisin, back to potted goose and then the hot smoked salmon, we eventually settle on all three starters. A small, perfectly round loaf of sourdough precedes the starters, and we're soon having a fine old time of it, enjoying bread and butter with the outstanding Californian pinot noir (De Loach Heritage Reserve, 2015).
We are soon in awestruck silence as the potted goose rillettes, smooth, dark and full of endless depth of flavour beneath the little layer of fat, grab the attention. But that doesn't last long as the hot smoked salmon hoves into view with an invitation to try a bit. Beautifully, lightly smoked, it retains all its fresh, shiny texture. The cauliflower soup is a velouté of velvety smooth warmth and comfort, the raisins providing sparkle and tang in counterpoint.
We are all nodding very approvingly, and I try to moan a bit about the lighting. Soon slapped down for being a negative nelly by the adviser, the mains of short rib, cod and chicken are delivered. The beef short rib is spiced and celebrated winter like no other dish I've had for a while, stepping on to the stage as it does with smoked onion, braised radish and celery. It's flawless; the whole thing is just a perfect moist mush of slow-cooked quality beef with root vegetables which still have all their faculties.
The cod is a beautiful marbled brick of pink and white and is accompanied by mussels, leeks, horseradish and herbs and a jug of light creamy jus sexed up with chopped chives. Everything here has been forensically prepared and is beautifully balanced. The adviser wasn't sure about getting chicken in the first place, and all the more doubtful as it comes with black pudding. But it also counts crushed turnip walnut and fried cabbage among its cast. Turns out the chicken is coated in a crust of back pudding and she is very taken with the thing. I could go on, but have no more space.
Hara is a real find. It's got the quality and it doesn't break convention or test your adventurous spirit, but it does deliver, by the wheelbarrow load, flavours of Ireland like few other can.
Pinot noir £42
Large water x 2 £8
Three courses x 3 £66