Restaurant review: The Hillside, Co Down
21 Main Street, Hillsborough, Co Down. Tel: 028 9268 9233
It's one of the most charming little pubs in the North. Behind the tiny door is a tiny lounge with hobbit furniture and flagstone floor. It's compelling and beautiful and just the job for visiting family and friends who may still have certain views about the North.
The Hillside Inn in Hillsborough takes the bad look off by reminding us that lovely country pubs still exist.
We're not good at preserving rural built environments, those former little market towns that used to bustle with livestock markets, preachers and poitin sellers. They're either visually wrecked by flags on lampposts or hasty, 20th century commercial developments, or both.
Take a look at old archive shots of rural Ireland and you'll see there was a vernacular architectural style that had some presence. Not much is left of this, other than in places with magical names like Ballinascreen, Aughnacloy, Donaghmore, Cushendall, Portaferry. And Hillsborough in Co Down.
Hillsborough is different, however. It is not noted for its sink housing estates, and its charm lies in its chocolate box prettiness, a post-war, Bluebirds-Over-the-White-Cliffs-of-Dover kind of scrubbed nostalgia. If Hillsborough was a gentleman, it would be wearing Donegal tweeds and clean wellies.
I remember visiting the Hillside Inn four years ago when it was no good at all. This surprised me at the time because the competition in the village is stiff: The Parson's Nose and the Plough are worth the trip out of town. So how could something as bad as the Hillside survive in a town like Hillsborough? It had dirty banquettes, poor lighting and the wood-burning stove remained unlit, as did the candles on the tables. This was not a place to hurry back to.
Fast-forward four years and this weekend's visit was remarkably better, although far from perfect. The interior was spruced up, the lighting was good and there was a happy buzz about it. The food was very good, the servers were alert and friendly and yet the easy wins were overlooked. For instance, the wood stove remained unlit. Fortunately, the adviser had a lighter, so we lit our own candle, poised full of romantic promise in the middle of the table.
Is there anything quite so sad and forlorn as an unlit fireplace? It's like looking into the mouth of a cold, dead horse, a closed-down amusements park in the winter, a derelict house you once lived in.
I asked if the stove worked. The server said yes but explained it wasn't cold enough to light it. I got the logic, but if I applied the same analysis, I would refuse a pint of icy cold Northbound Pale Ale because I wasn't thirsty. I wouldn't turn down a slice of apple pie after my dinner because I wasn't hungry. If Edmund Hillary climbed Everest because it was there, the fire should be lit for precisely the same reason - because it's there.
It's the hospitality that's in it - the warm, hypnotic glow, the flickering light and the sense that you're in a wonderfully welcoming place. Who can resist the embracing seduction of a few flames licking around a bit of wood as you sip your wine and chew on your garlic butter crab claws?
I usually avoid hot crab claws, but something told me the Hillside's would be good. They were so good, in fact, they almost made me forget the dead fireplace.
Seriously big and shelled - so you don't have to split your fingers open and bleed all over your napkin - the claws were juicy and moist and full of flavour. The garlic butter was not sickly or heavy and provided just enough back-taste to support the crabmeat. They weren't cheap at five for £7.50, but the quality of them justified the price easily.
The pan-seared cod was absolutely textbook: crispy-skinned, pearly, slippery, interlocked chunks of white fish, moist and firm. The cockle cassoulet beneath was destroyed with too much salt, but could have been top-class. The £15.50 burger and fries were almost worth the money. A request for a rocket salad caused some confusion and supplementary questions from the kitchen: "You sure you don't want tomatoes with that? You sure you just want rocket leaves?" The adviser explained that, if possible, she'd just like a plain rocket salad with maybe a little shaved parmesan and a few drops of balsamic. In the end, a rocket salad appeared with carrots and red cabbage on top.
These were minor, if mildly irritating, blips when you consider how massive they impact on your time in a place and how easy they are to fix. Yet the Hillside was definitely worth a trip.
Just remember to bring a lighter.
Crab claws x 2 £15
Cod on cassoulet £14.95
Glass wine £5.95