Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Balloo House
1 Comber Road, Newtownards, BT23 6PA Tel 028 9754 1510
Balloo House in the heart of Co Down is as Ulster as you can get. Lovely old country pub, bustling great brasserie in the back and a touch of rough stone, white linen and fireplace upstairs. The county set love the place because it has everything from burgers to bouillabaisse (occasionally) and beers to burgundies, which you can enjoy to the max as the Bentley can stay safely overnight in the car park. Locals don't seem to mind the influx of moccasins and pashminas. In fact, it's a very hospitable and democratic place with, quite literally, something for everyone.
Chef Danny Millar calls himself a feeder. He says the old school of Irish hospitality is firmly rooted in volume. Never mind the quality, feel the weight of that. But Millar is also a master of quality. Which means that when he's put lobster on the menu as a starter, he won't just let you have a sniff of the crustacean buried deep in a mound of celeriac, or pasta; you're far more likely to see close to a half-tail on your plate.
This is what he did last week for the third in a series of four seasonal dinners featuring top invited chefs. Balloo House's contribution to Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink celebrations has seen Tom Kitchin (The Kitchin, Edinburgh) for winter and Glynn Purnell (Purnell's, Birmingham) do spring so far and the summer dinner was marked down to Nigel Haworth owner of Northcote Manor in Lancashire and a former Great British Menu survivor, just like the other three. The fourth and final will be Stephen Terry (The Hardwick restaurant, south Wales) in November.
Both chefs worked on a five-course extravaganza, which resulted in some of the best dishes of the year so far. Chefs have a weird a wonderful way of getting on with each other. The competition between them is as ferocious as you'll find in any combat sport.
It's the heartbeat of a sector which sees good chefs send their kitchen staff to other chefs around the world for stages, or training periods. Michelin star chefs like Stevie in Ox still go on stages for two or three weeks and Noel McMeel tells a brilliant story of going all the way to San Francisco to try to get some experience in Chez Panice, one of the world's greatest restaurants at the time. He phoned the place every day from across the street until they let him join them for a few days.
Haworth and Millar may be young veterans, but the edge of competitiveness was never far away. We were under no illusion as to who cooked what dish, because chef Millar wanted no part in anything that might appear minimalistic. It's that feeder thing he was talking about.
Mind you, Haworth was no tight-wad, either, and from the amuse bouches of Ballycastle crab with cauliflower and parmesan crisp through to the dazzling Killinchy strawberry and elderflower fool with lemon granite and chocolate crumble at the end, the volumes were generous.
And then there were the matching wines, of which there was welcomingly an abundance. I now run a mile from tasting menus with matching wines, because of the deep fear of having to wait for the glass to be filled, which, of course, it never is, because you're meant to be polite and there for the tasting. Just leave the bottle on the table, thank you.
But Balloo House couldn't have poured it down our gullets more enthusiastically. It must have been because it was a Monday night (when else can you get a world-class chef) and half of us were driving.
The dishes were an interesting set of punctuation marks, tracing a journey through nearby coast and country. Lough Neagh eel rubbed shoulders with Armagh apple and pork belly from Peter Hannan's Moira magic cellars.
Mourne lamb with thyme and lemon marmalade, grilled courgettes and spinach and basil was distinctly French in flavours yet very local in volumes. The accompanying dauphinoise potatoes were a deep, creamy, nutmeggy marvel, which sets the standard for all those to follow.
The list of local heroes Danny Millar works with reads like a roll-call of food nobility: Abernethy Butter, Blackwater Fishing, Stillwater Fishing, Finnebrogue, Broighter Gold, Shortcross Gin and Woodview eggs are all top of the league.
The JN Wines included some interesting discoveries: a rich, golden Umami Ronchi Vechie Vigne was like a supercharged chardonnay working its creamy way with the eel and the Patrick Javalier Cuvee des Forgets was perfect with the lobster and its bisque.
Roll on the winter and the arrival of Stephen Terry on November 14. But Danny Millar remains the star. The great news is, he's there every Friday and Saturday night.
Five-course tasting menu with wines £110