When news broke of Ireland’s first female Michelin star chef Danni Barry and her departure from Belfast’s EIPIC at Deanes many in the industry were shocked. Seemingly riding high on the back of the esteemed accolade, Barry was not only making a name for herself in the culinary world for her exemplary cooking, but also for her stance on encouraging more women to consider the chef’s life as a serious career move.
She has often spoken of the pressures of Michelin and the demands it can place on your work/life balance, or lack of in many instances. As the old saying goes, “sometimes fate has a way of intervening”.
Stevie Higgision and his wife Cristina had run the popular Square Bistro in nearby Lisburn for many years and were both huge fans of Barry’s food and her down to earth nature. So when the opportunity to acquire a local treasure named Clenaghans, that had been closed for two years popped up, they immediately thought of Barry as an ideal partner.
On a whim, never thinking Barry would actually take them up on the offer of owning a share and running Clenaghans alongside them, they were ecstatic when Barry jumped at the idea, feeling it was the perfect opportunity for her to not only be a part owner, but also have more of a balance in her life away from the pressure of Michelin.
That said, it is very clear Danni Barry is by no means resting on her laurels, many of the relationships she had built up with local suppliers in EIPIC she has carried over to Clenaghans with an exciting menu that is evocative of good old pub grub, but not any old pub grub as we found out last weekend.
Clenaghans had been on our radar since its opening week but we were blissfully unaware that they had charming, little cottages dating back to the Eighteenth century almost adjoining the restaurant.
Although run as two separate businesses, we were delighted to secure a booking in one of the cottages for the night, even though we only had a short 1 hour 40 minutes drive to get there from Dublin, we would recommend taking advantage and booking a little weekend escape to this rural gem.
At €96 for two people the accommodation at Clenaghans apartments is beyond good value, painstakingly renovated with great care, each cottage is unique in its own layout and design with all the mod cons sitting comfortably within the old world charm, such as the Aga cooker that took centre stage in our cosy retreat.
If you are looking for an unusual romantic escape which won’t break the bank, this is it.
We had an 8pm dinner booking and arrived to a full house, which at the start of dry January is good going. Think roaring open fires, 200 year old reclaimed church benches and old Guinness memorabilia. There’s no shortage of character at Clenaghans, that we can guarantee.
Unsurprisingly, we were seated in a little alcove to the rear of the restaurant, aptly named the “naughty corner” which we were more that happy to occupy. It is these unique little nuances that give Clenaghans such individual charm, that and of course the local “dead on” staff who in typical Moira fashion are probably some of the most down to earth, genuine, friendly bunch we have come across in the hospitality industry for some time.
First impressions are important and so far things were off to a flying start, but would Barry’s transition from Michelin to Gastro be a seamless affair?
The menu is divided into bar snacks, starters and mains. Pork scratchings and smoked chorizo pancake make up some of the tasty bites on offer. We settled on some Vegetable Crips with a herb mayo and a moorish Pork, sage and Onion Scotch Egg.
As we sipped on a glass of Cline Cellars, 2015 Pinot Noir the first of our starters arrived; Chopped Beef, Pickled Onions, Mustard and a superb smoked bone marrow, a cracking take on a beef tartare and a dish that proved to be a benchmark for the rest of the evening.
Across the table lay a Soused Mackerel, a dish rarely seen on menus these days but one that deserves to be revived. The salty sour marinade mixed with pickled dill and sour cream dressing was a real triumph and a refreshing change from the “samey” mackerel dishes we see so often .
This is what is exciting about Barry’s food, it’s fresh and inventive, but much like the surroundings completely unpretentious.
Peter Hannan is a bit of a legend in this neck of the woods and if you are serious about your food offering then you will want the best local produce to hand, Hannan Meats is seen as the holy grail of top quality meat so no surprise to see him listed as one of Clenaghans main suppliers.
With that in mind there was one dish on the menu that caught our attention, in our opinion, on a night out, a little splurge on a good dinner shouldn’t be about counting the calories, it should be about pure indulgence – and that is exactly what our Sugar Pit Bacon Chop (£24) was.
You don’t often see a bacon chop tomahawk style but by God was this one seriously delicious piece of meat, salt aged at Hannon meats and then sugar coated for 10 days . We had thought Barry has worked her magic on a secret recipe to produce glaze that looked and tasted this good, but when asked she gave all credit to the ageing process and Peter Hannan’s produce.
Vegans may want to look away now because if Barry & Hannan glazed all the pigs in Northern Ireland like this, no-one would be safe.
Throw in some beef dripping chips, beer pickled onion rings and you have a death row meal worth devouring.
Feeling slightly envious of the chop on the other side of the naughty corner, the envy swiftly faded when the second main arrived. Salt Aged Lamb (£19), again from Peter Hannan, cooked medium rare with a striking pink hue and managing to retain all the succleunce of this tender meat.
Barry jazzed this classic up with a slight Asian influence, pickled kale and an outstanding miso flavour aubergine to create a dish that will be etched in our taste buds for some time. Oh and did we mention the heart attack inducing mash made with the holy grail of NI butter – Abernethy . When we say “to die for”, we are not exaggerating.
It’s hard to not fangirl or boy over Barry’s cooking but sometimes restraint is not required – this was one of those times. With two hearty courses we decided to share a dessert of Mulled Pear & Honey Trifle, which turned out to be a portion that defeated us, but none the less was welcome change to a sherry trifle and tasted perfectly boozy enough that it would have satisfied either of our Grannies.
Clenaghans is a bit of a mouthful but boy what a mouthful it is. Barry exceeded all of our expectations, not only in the quality of every dish, but in the calibre of team they are developing here and in how true they have stayed to the character of the original building, and indeed the area itself.
Get thee to Clenaghans fast because we have a feeling this is about to become the hottest ticket in town.
Dinner for two including wine ad a bottle of sparkling water came to €127.83
REVIEW BY JULES MAHON