The Holestone, 24 Main Street, Ballymoney. www.theholestone.com
You can’t keep a good man or woman down. After two years of hospitality hell, restaurateurs have been re-emerging, blinking into the bright sunlight and looking into empty kitchens and dining rooms.
They may also be short of staff, but somehow, restaurants are operating again. And they may also be offering reduced service and opening times, but they’re back.
Jonathan and Chloe Clarke are among those keeping the stove lit during the lockdowns in their food trailer.
Street food has been the mainstay of many quality restaurants that have had to take to the open road to find business. The Clarkes’ Holestone truck recently appeared in Down Royal race course’s new Food Truck Festival, one of 18 serving up a vast range of food including burgers, crab rolls, pizzas, scallops, tacos, noodles and much more besides.
Their truck food was so good I promised to visit the mothership of the same name which is firmly grounded in the Main Street of Ballymoney.
Ballymoney also seems to have come back to life in recent times. Walking from a car park in town to have lunch in the Holestone a few days ago revealed its bustling heart, where loads of shoppers darted through the busy traffic on their way to a butcher and the Winsome Lady.
Nestled among these shops is the Holestone, formerly Mollies. A cheerful, cosy and welcoming place, the Holestone staff are young with a slick lick of professionalism about them. And in the kitchen is chef Jonathan himself.
I’m with a man of impeccable taste and modest appetite.
This leaves us all the more alert to the specials of the day, which include scallops “just landed in Ballycastle this morning” served with black pudding bonbons, chorizo aioli and shaved cauliflower.
There follows an unexpectedly pleasurable moment. I knew chef Clarke was good, but this could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in Dublin or Belfast. The plate is generous with three large scallops, each perfectly roasted with the slightest crust and that deep softness within.
The scallop’s delicate flavour is not overshadowed by the chorizo and the added dimension of soft and salty black pudding balls in crispy crumb shell, the subtle tang of the blanched kale leaves and warmth of the aioli combine to make this starter utterly endearing.
By now I’m wondering how this can be followed and a large iron skillet of sizzling onions beneath a mound of finely-stripped chicken covered in tobacco onions does the trick very nicely.
Sinus-clearing peppercorn sauce binds the lot together in a pubby presentation which demands a chilled pale ale that sadly is replaced by sparkling water.
Across the table is a bowl of nachos. They are snacks, usually, but in the Holestone, where they are considered a signature dish, the nachos, made in house, are a meal in themselves served with chilli beef, fresh guacamole and a spiced salsa. The man eats them with a knife and fork as if to underline their new position as a meal of substance.
The Holestone is a place of fusion. There are burgers, fish and chips, Ewing’s prawn prepared in salt and chilli, 24-hour braised boneless ribs, goujons and even vegan pizzas.
The families of Ballymoney don’t have to go very far to enjoy a broad variety of dishes.
It is a bar with a restaurant and the quality here is unusually and very unexpectedly high.
It deserves your attention and it is worth making the trip to Ballymoney just to eat there.
Chicken sizzler: £19
Sparkling water: £2.60