Eating Out: Danni Barry brings star quality to the lovely Clenaghan's country restaurant
48 Soldierstown Road,
028 92 652952
THIS time last year Danni Barry was knocking out everything you'd expect a chef with a Michelin Star in their back pocket to knock out. Duck yolk, baked celeriac and mushroom ketchup? Check. Linseed, beetroot and goat's curd? Obvs. Turbot, cabbage, mussel cream and kohlrabi? Well, duh.
All that good stuff saw Deanes Eipic hold on to the star it had picked up under Barry for the third year in a row. But having notched up the hat-trick, Barry headed off for something completely different.
Clenaghans, five minutes off the M1 at the junction of two country roads where Armagh and Antrim meet between Aghalee, Moira and Maghaberry, is far removed from the urban cool of Michael Deane's flagship Belfast city centre restaurant.
It's a 250-year-old, stone-walled former farm building/pub/shop/accommodations with an old petrol pump standing guard outside. Inside it's all nooks and crannies and open fires with bare wooden tables and cushions on chairs set up in a collection of small rooms with low, beamed ceilings and dotted with old tin signs, sepia photographs.
It's the Irish country pub of every American tourist's dreams and the lovely spot of every over-here person's understated satisfaction.
Well-executed pub grub in these surroundings and anyone would be happy.
While the building's self-catering apartments continued to operate, the restaurant that was on the site closed two years ago and has been reopened by the partnership of Barry and Christine and Stevie Higginson, owners of the Square Bistro in Lisburn.
We visited on its first Saturday, our lunch being just the ninth service since it opened the previous Tuesday.
Maybe it's unfair to commit an assessment of a place to posterity – or at least The Irish News – so soon. But that would only be the case if there was slack needing to be cut. Sure, a couple of forks hit the tiled floor, the sound reverberating around the old place, but the service was as efficient as it was friendly and unobtrusive. And if the front of house has hit the ground running, the kitchen must have Usain Bolt washing the spuds.
Mushrooms on toast, cooked in beef fat, could have passed for pieces of cow themselves, while the haddock chowder was much more fine dining than pub grub, a light soup with beautifully poached fish and leek and a crisp square of cheese-topped sourdough.
But even what might pass for pub grub was nothing of the sort. Braised venison was the essence of winter, rich and soothing beneath a hat of flaky pastry, along with red cabbage and a mash of potato, carrot and parsnip.
A thick square of sugar cured bacon under a fried egg was lined with ribbons of spectacular fat that melted in the mouth at an only slightly faster rate than the meat.
It could easily have stood up to a little more dig from the mustard cream sauce but that almost feels like looking for something to complain about. It came with lovely, fat, hot, crunchy chips. No complaints there.
At lunch starters are between £6 and £7, while the mains are all £12.50 apart from the fish and chips which is £1 less.
For dinner, starters go from £6 to £9 with mains £18 and up, topping out with a £27 ribeye, while there's a £25 three-course Sunday lunch menu featuring, among other things, a rack of that bacon.
Dessert – £6.50 apiece – brought a smooth chocolate ice cream with foamy malted milk and a biscuity, chocolate topping and a toffee apple tart with around 578 layers of thinly sliced fruit in a crisp pastry shell under a walnut crumble. It came with a wee jug of custard on the short list of the best I've tasted anywhere.
Clenaghans is the sort of place – especially at this time of year with the fires raging inside – you don't want to leave, especially after one or two of their rum, ginger, clove, lime and apple Sir John Lavery cocktails.
In an interview about her move Barry said she wanted "to have a life", which didn't necessarily tally with running a Michelin-starred kitchen. While she may have left that side of things behind, she's brought the precision and attention to flavour that caught the guide's eye in Belfast with her down the country. You'd be well advised to follow.
Mushrooms on toast £6.50
Smoked haddock chowder £5.50
Braised venison £12.50
Bacon and egg £12.50
Cabbage with spiced yogurt £3.50
Toffee apple tart £6.50
Frozen chocolate £6.50
Sir John Lavery cocktail £8
Large sparkling water £5
Double espresso x2 £4.20