Bull & Ram is located just thirty minutes south of Belfast in the bustling market town of Ballynahinch in County Down. The restaurant hit the ground running when it opened at the end of May and has been garnering rave reviews from critics and customers alike all of whom seem to love the down-to-earth, no-frills food that is on offer. After a quick online search I found a copy of the menu and saw that it was packed full of dishes that sounded incredibly delicious so promptly booked a table for dinner there recently.
The restaurant is owned by chef patron Kelan McMichael who many will know from his time at the award-winning Poacher’s Pocket, one of Northern Ireland’s top gastropubs. Housed in a beautiful Grade 1 listed Edwardian butcher’s shop, Bull & Ram has loads of character. Many of the original features, including the monochromatic chequerboard floor tiles and original meat hanging rail have been retained resulting in a dining room quite unlike any that I have been in before and I found its quirky décor very appealing.
The dining room is divided into two; with the tiled butcher’s shop at the front and a cosy modern area towards the back of the long narrow property. An open kitchen is situated at the rear and diners can watch Kelan McMichael and his team busy at work preparing the food. This is something which I have always found fascinating but on our arrival we were given a choice of tables to sit at and decided to forego the theatre of the open kitchen in order to take a table at the very front from where we could fully enjoy the Edwardian splendour of the period dining room.
The menu is extensive by modern standards but it is well-thought out and easy to navigate with a contemporary bistro-style theme to it. Unsurprisingly, given the restaurant’s butcher’s shop beginnings and its name, meat features heavily on the menu but there are also options for vegans and vegetarians. Moreover, many of the dishes are coeliac friendly or easily adaptable. Ingredients are supplied by some of Northern Ireland’s top producers. For example beef is supplied by the 2016 Great Taste Awards Supreme Champion Hannan Meats from nearby Moira and fish is sourced from Still Waters in Donaghadee.
We decided to kick off our meal with a couple of cocktails. On the advice of our waiter – the very knowledgeable Matthew, a talented mixologist, I decided to go for one of the house cocktails – a Shorthorn Spritz (£8) made with Shortcross Gin, vermouth and the Bull & Ram homemade bitters. This was a lovely easy-to-drink cocktail and a perfect aperitif. My dining companion’s Dark & Stormy (£8), a classic dark rum highball cocktail, was delightfully boozy and also excellent.
With our cocktails we grazed on a couple of fantastic snacks from the ‘before you start’ section of the menu. We quickly devoured the Homemade Pork Scratchings, Apple Sauce (£3.50) which were deeply savoury with a nice salty edge. Pork scratchings are normally served in finger-sized strips but the Bull & Ram version were supersized and served looking like large mutant poppadoms in a bowl. I loved them and thought the slightly tart apple sauce was the perfect accompaniment
The Oxtail & Young Buck Blue Cheese Arancini, Horseradish Mayo (£4.50) was another winner. Arancini are a popular street food in Rome – made from leftover risotto which is rolled into little balls, coated in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. They are often stuffed with little morsels of meat or cheese. Here the arancini were given an Irish twist by the inclusion of Young Buck, an award winning blue cheese in the style of Stilton which is made locally by Mike Thompson in Newtownards, County Down and also oxtail an oft-forgotten cut of meat which along with other so-called ‘lesser cuts’ is currently going through a renaissance. Despite their diminutive size these arancini packed quite a punch on the flavour front and were enhanced by the restraint shown when adding the horseradish to the mayonnaise that they were paired with.
The wine list in Bull & Ram has been well chosen and includes some familiar, crowd-pleasing bottles and also some other less well-known but interesting wines which I was tempted by. In the end we decided to stick with cocktails; – a summery gin-based Bramble (£8) which included blackberry flavoured crème de mûre for me and a Penicillin (£8) for my guest. The latter used a wonderfully smoky whiskey and was the type of drink that would put hairs on your chest but we weren’t complaining.
Both starters hit the right note and continued with the high standards already achieved during our meal. My Scallops ‘Rockerfeller’, Creamed Spinach, Smoked Bacon, Garlic Crumb (£8.95) was a lovely dish where the sweetness of the perfectly cooked scallops was accentuated by the buttery garlic juices and their yielding, almost creamy texture offset by toasted brioche breadcrumbs. They were served in their shells and looked extremely inviting.
The French Onion Soup, Beef Stock, Cheesy Bread (£4.95) was one of those dishes that you hope will be good but regretfully, often end up disappointing. Not here, as this was one of the best versions of this bistro classic that I have ever eaten. Key to its success was the rich and meaty beef stock that had been used as its base which brought out the underlying sweetness of the onions but also mellowed out any bitterness that the onions had taken on during their long and slow caramelisation. Topped in traditional fashion with a cheesy croûte it was a joy to eat.
Bull & Ram has an impressive selection of steaks, including sharing cuts to choose from for main courses but I found the lure of the Sugar-pit Cured Bacon Chop, Poached Springmount Farm Hen Egg, Parsley Sauce (£16.95) impossible to resist. Included in the price was a choice of side and without hesitation I quickly ordered the French Fried Onions. It’s been a long time since I last tried a bacon chop and this sweetly succulent offering with its simple but flavourful parsley sauce reminded me how wonderful they can be. I felt slightly cheated that my poached egg was soft and not runny as I prefer, but this was only a minor issue and the quality of the meat and superbly crisp onion rings more than made up for it.
For his main, my guest selected Rump Steak, Fries, Bone Marrow Gravy (£12.95) from the specials board which was perfectly cooked medium-rare as requested. This was a no-nonsense plate of food which was all about the quality of the beef that had been used. The dripping fried chips were everything chips should be; – with crisp exteriors and fluffy steaming centres that made us smile with pleasure as we dipped them into the unctuous bone marrow gravy.
With our appetites well sated we decided to share a Sticky Toffee Pudding, Toffee Sauce, Rum & Raisin Ice-Cream (£5.50) for dessert. The richly flavoured pudding was dark and delicious made more-so when sponge-like it soaked up the warm and sweet toffee sauce. It was served with a scoop of homemade rum & raisin ice-cream which I loved and despite feeling quite full we licked the bowl clean.
Our meal in Bull & Ram was excellent and I can see why it has quickly established itself as one of the North’s most popular new restaurants. Staff are friendly, knowledgeable and engaging and the service definitely enhanced our dining experience. However, be warned… You won’t leave Bull & Ram hungry as portions are generous and the highly appealing menu means that you will (as we did) probably over-order. Perhaps it’s something to do with the euro/sterling exchange rate at the moment, but I thought that our meal represented remarkable value-for-money considering the quality of the food that we ate.
Put plainly, thisis a restaurant that deserves a place at the top of any ‘must visit’ list.
Bull and Ram
1 Dromore Street
The restaurant was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in the post-Christmas period but re-opens 7 days a week from the 13th February. Further details are available on the restaurant’s website at bullandram.com
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.