Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Restaurant review: We take a bite from Clenaghans

Soldierstown Road, Aghalee, Co Armagh. Tel: 028 9265 2952

By Joris Minne

Successful country house hotels and restaurants, bars and bistros work because they conform to a notion of rural life lifted straight from the pages of coffee table magazines found in city centre apartments and homes across the posher parts of cities throughout Ireland and Great Britain. The secret of a successful country house hospitality business is to be the exact opposite of rural. It must be staged and utterly manufactured.

If these country houses were to remain true to their perceived origins, you'd never go near them. This is because they would be almost impossible to find as they are far from any town or village, six crazed collies would have bitten the legs off you between the car and the front door, they would be cold and damp, there would be livestock roaming the corridors and lounges, the electricity would work only if someone had remembered to put more diesel in the generator, and your food and drink would be given to you when the cook had time. And it would smell.

Of course, none of these features are allowed anywhere near a successful country house. Believe me, it's much better this way.

There are essentials which must be in place before success can be achieved. These include a warm welcome, roaring fires, excellent food, bare brick walls, flagstone floors, young, agile and intelligent service and plenty of parking. Oh, and close proximity to the city would be good.

Impossible, you might say. Yet the new country house hotel and restaurant is something Ireland does quite well, both out in the heart of pastoral countryside and in villages. Think of Galgorm Resort, Lough Erne Resort, Manor House, Beechill House, and the likes. But as for your perfect country restaurant, the smaller, more intimate kind, the one you can bring your posh American and British friends and businesspeople to, look no further than Clenaghan's.

Stevie and Christine Higginson, from Lisburn's Bistro on the Square, recently joined forces with chef Danni Barry to take on a lease on the beautiful, redbrick farm buildings on the Soldierstown Road at Aghalee.

The Higginsons have plenty of form and the bistro is a quality operation. Danni is the chef who brought home the Michelin Star to Michael Deane's Eipic restaurant on Belfast's May Street.

The combination of the environment, Christine Higginson's front of house discipline and warmth (an unusual twinning) and Danni's talents in the kitchen result in one of the most enjoyable restaurant experiences you will find, not only in the north but in the whole of Ireland.

The beguiling charms of the low-ceilinged, higgledy piggledy layout, with its secret corners and snugs, the roaring fires and the lighting and comfort of the entire restaurant (you only ever get to see a little part of it, such is the layout) are unique. I honestly cannot think of anywhere which comes close. Billy Andy's, the Bushmills Inn, the Brewer's House and some others are within this realm, but Clenaghan's is the new standard.

Then there's the food. Danni Barry has picked up major awards in her career. For three years she brought back that Michelin star, but now, she says, it's time to live a life. And so we are treated with just the kind of rustic dishes you hope a country restaurant would fire up: woodland mushrooms cooked in beef fat and served on toasted doorsteps of sourdough; onion and cheddar tart with pickled walnuts and salad; potted crab with devilled egg and pickled vegetables; and winter broths.

There is roast rump of Glenarm Shorthorn, succulent, rich and a supercharged version of the classic Sunday lunch, with Yorkshire puddings as big as a burst football. Sugarpit bacon rack is a caricature, a pop art rendering of your most vividly imagined version of what this should be: pink, sweet, salty and tender as cake. The accompanying black pudding sauce looks like a tapenade and is beautifully balanced, dry and full of dark flavours.

Prices are reasonable, although a fiver for a bottle of sparkling water is, er, eye-watering.

Clenaghan's is sensational and, once the word is properly out, you will struggle to reserve a table, so phone them now (there were five of us and table 13 is your man).

The bill

Olives ...............................................£3.00

Veg crisps ........................................£3.00

Breads .............................................£4.00

2-course lunch x 3.........................£60.00

3-course lunch x 2 .........................£50.00

Bottle Prosecco ...........................£25.00

Glass wine x 2 .............................£13.00

Lge bottle sparkling water x 2 ...£10.00

Bottle Yardsman.............................£4.50

Coffees x 3 ..... ...............................£6.60

Total............................................. £179.10

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