Restaurant review: We take a bite out of The Moody Boar
Palace Stables, Armagh. Tel: 028 3752 9678
Armagh is Ireland's Atlantis. It has an almost mythical reputation among lovers of Celtic history, early Christianity, architecture, arts and literature.
Yet it remains completely off the beaten track, taking second place as a centre of commerce and trade since the loss of the railway connection to the likes of nearby Portadown and Tijuana further south on the border.
This means that Armagh has to work harder to attract inward investment and visitors as well as maintaining and growing its population.
Thanks to cultural initiatives such as the John O'Connor Winter Writing school (November 2016), the John Hewitt School, Charles Wood Summer School and Music Festival, the Armagh Pipers and those brilliant nights in Red Ned's bar in Ogle Street - not forgetting my dad (91), who plays an organ recital for Culture Night - Armagh glories in a more refined reputation.
It is a seat of high art and learning, an ancient city which is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland for Catholics and Anglicans. This places it among the likes of Jerusalem, Mecca and Rome. If I was a city councillor I'd be lobbying for a twinning arrangement with all three.
However, the downside of being intellectual and refined is that food plays second violin and is considered a lesser art. I know university professors, classical musicians, organ scholars and authors of philosophical reviews who don't know and don't care about food at all. For them a 42-day aged side of beef from Peter Hannan's Himalayan salt cellar, a piece of Donegal salmon smoked by Walter Ewing or a Niall McKenna cooked duck confit is as significant as a packet of Wotsits.
For them, a pre-cooked microwave meal from the supermarket does the job of refuelling. This may explain why there are so few great places to eat in Armagh. Among them are Uluru, 4 Vicars and, mind how you say it, the Moody Boar.
The Moody Boar has been a feature of Armagh's tourism fabric for the last few years, occupying an attractive space in the Palace Stables which once served the Demesne, a Georgian masterpiece built by Archbishop Robinson in the 1700s.
The conversion of the stables into a restaurant is a wonder in itself with great use made of the courtyard. It has scooped awards and is respected among foodies as a destination restaurant. However, as is often the case with places out in the country, where competition is far less intense, you have to ask: is it as good as its reputation suggests?
By the way, my mother is a regular and warned me that if the review was going to be bad, she'd never be able to show her face again. Mum, it's safe to go back.
The Moody Boar has its moments of greatness, but it's not without its cracks. Six of us went on Sunday and discovered that there are great dishes, including the slow cooked beef, which the advisor reported had everything going for it: texture, flavour, colour and size.
The chicken roulade was another big success as were the desserts, among which a dark and crumbly carrot cake and a Bramley apple frangipane sponge stand out.
The chicken liver parfait is voluptuous and rich, once you dig down through a hard, lard-like lid. The lentils are full of deep, almost goosy, Auvergnat flavours which few restaurants achieve. But on this occasion the hake is overcooked by a good few minutes.
The ham hock was good, but could have had more back-of-the-throat porky heft and less of the style-conscious hints of piccalilli. Ham hock is not fine food. It's the truck driving, tattooed, sleeves rolled up, hairy-armed man of the starter world. So less of the hint of piccalilli and more of the scoop and slap approach would be welcome and appropriate.
And this is the challenge for the Moody Boar. Some dishes are a bit too tarted up to look as if they belong in a fine dining restaurant. Less time spent on this and more on being a little less uptight and more brasserie style would work better.
Service is very friendly and capable and even though some small requests were overlooked, the Moody Boar is a very good restaurant. Value for money here is as remarkable as the venue is beautiful.
Ham hock terrine x 2 £15
Parfait x 2 £14.50
Slow-cooked beef £14
Chicken roulade £14
Roast beef £14
Hake and lentils x 3 £7
Carrot cake £5.50
Ice cream £5.50
Coffees x 3 £8.40
Sparkling water £3.20