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Smooth operator: We sample the food at the River Room

By Joris Minne

When Galgorm Resort and Spa lost its chef to the competition, there were fears that standards would slip. Not a bit of it.

You travel for miles around the Co Antrim heartlands and fail to find anywhere half-decent to eat, then two come along at once: in Galgorm. There's Galgorm Resort and Spa, which is like a West Virginian country club, and there's Galgorm Castle, the ancient seat of a forgotten family and now kitted out with a golf course. Both have good reputations for food and, naturally, there is some rivalry between them.

The Castle chef is a former Resort and Spa man and, when he crossed the road last year to join the competition, there were fears that the quality of the food and loyalty to the seasons would be lost.

But the resort's restaurant needed not fear, as Chris Rees, the number two, stepped up to the plate and, by a number of accounts, has been delivering standards which match that of his old boss.

So, when the resort announced its latest development — they are calling it a conservatory, but you have to think in terms of Botanic Gardens tropical house to get an idea of the scale — the adviser and I could not escape its lure.

And it was good. There is self-assuredness among Ballymena people (Galgorm is, more or less, a suburb of the old county capital) and this mixes very well with the hospitality sector.

Confidence and comfort are great greeters. There's nothing like entering a place in which the fire is lit, the sofas are as fat as hippos and there's a team of smiling staff milling about, relaxed but alert. And so it is with the River Room restaurant, one of the best hotel restaurants in Ulster, according to the Restaurants Association of Ireland.

The River Room is not the conservatory: they are located beside each other and both share enviable views through the mature beeches and oaks to the River Braid below.

The dining room is a grand affair done up in “High Fulton's”, a style which mixes opulence and comfort and is becoming rare. There are sheltered booths and high-backed, richly upholstered chairs and the formality of the room is softened by hugely accomplished restaurant manager Chloe Robb. Robb manages to be deferential and charming, which is not an easy balance.

The menu is a visitor's dream, what with all the local references: at £55, the Taste of Antrim five-course taster includes Kilkeel scallops with artichoke, ham with duck eggs and asparagus, turbot, lobster and salsify (looks like a hairy white carrot and some say it tastes of oysters), and honey parfait with strawberry and elderflower. The honey is from a nearby beekeeper and almost everything else is in abundance, if you've got the money.

But we are instead seduced by the cheaper and more conventional menu and the ballotine of rabbit which comes with the lightest, crunchiest spring turnips, crumbs of haggis, razor-thin slices of Granny Smith’s

and roasted walnuts. This is a terribly posh-looking dish, but the flavours are all stamped with springtime lightness. It is joyful and exactly the right thing before a full-on summer.

Saddle of Antrim lamb is remarkably similar in appearance to the rabbit dish only a bigger, heavier model. There are peas and wild mushrooms, olive oil mash artistically smeared around the plate and crumbed black pudding.

This is outstanding and perfectly pink. My only very mild regret is that the fatty surrounds of the meat haven't been crisped up (but then I love this bit almost burned).

The adviser is hugely taken by the cheese platter, which is the best we've ever had (and this comparison includes great ones in Richard Corrigan's Lindsay House in London and Patrick Gibaud in Dublin). Well-kept and presented, the Gubbeen, Crozier blue and smoked Ardrahan are particularly memorable.

The honey parfait with its raspberry, elderflower jelly and honeycomb is much better than the chocolate delice, which seems to have lost much of its flavour. Honey is a fabulous, if acquired, taste, but this is exceptionally deep-throated and plays a drum and bass to the jelly and raspberries’ light, tangy tones.

The River Room has lost none of its magic. The adviser likes the “touch of Ballymena bling”, which mixes grandeur with living room comfort. But the food and service is the closest thing we'll get to if we had to accurately describe the pinnacle of formal Ulster hospitality.

Twitter: @jorisminne

The Bill

Aviation gin £8.50

Cosmopolitan £8.50

Scallops £9

Rabbit £8

Lamb £24

Loin of beef £26

Cheese £8

Honey parfait £7.50

Chocolate delice £7.50

Glass wine (x 3) £20.25

TOTAL £127.25

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