The Bull & Ram, County Down: restaurant review
Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Joe Warwick and olive reader Harry Walsh review The Bull & Ram, County Down, Northern Ireland
Joe Warwick writes about restaurants, hails from County Down and lives in London. He is the editor of Where Chefs Eat, an international guide to chefs’ favourite restaurants.
Harry Walsh lives in Ballynahinch and is a civil engineer. He loves all things meaty and his best restaurant experience was at Niall McKenna’s Bar & Grill, James St South, Belfast.
The Bull & Ram in Ballynahinch, County Down, is in a Grade I-listed Edwardian butcher’s shop, beautifully restored with original tiles, meat hanging rails, a herringbone oak ceiling and a butcher’s block kitchen pass. It’s in two rooms, with a more modern space at the back that looks over the kitchen.
As for the food, it focusses on local, seasonal produce (mainly meat). Beef comes from Hannan Meats in Moira just under 20 miles away, and is dried in a Himalayan salt chamber – choose sirloin, ribeye, rump or fillet steak, all served with sides including beef dripping chips and garlic chestnut mushrooms, plus a choice of five sauces (think bone marrow gravy). There are sharing options too, including chateaubriand for just shy of £60. Sustainable fish is also on the menu, all landed in Dundrum, County Down, as are vegetarian options and a considerate, lengthy children’s menu. bullandram.com
Our pro says…
The only problem with turning a handsome Edwardian butcher’s into a dining room is that one was designed to keep large chunks of meat cold, while the other needs to keep its customers warm – no easy task in Northern Ireland’s bleak winter.
There’s a second, modern, dining room overlooking the open kitchen at the back, a selection of vintage cleavers laid out like ceramic ducks on one of its walls, that’s undeniably warmer. But the soul of the place is the original shop, with its listed vintage tiling (including a bull and a ram), herringbone oak ceiling and meat racks. On this, my second visit, I was pleased to note that they’ve installed a door heater to help cosy things up. *I was recognised as I’ve been there before.
Chef Kelan McMichael’s menu is all about pushing local produce in particular, and appropriately, given the setting, meat from Peter Hannan in Moira, whose award-winning beef, available in various steaks and cuts for sharing, is dry-aged for flavour and tenderness in a Himalayan salt chamber.
If you’re going to take the vegetarian in your life to eat in an old butcher’s, they’ll be surprisingly well served here with the likes of a roasted winter vegetable pasty or a squash and chickpea curry. Scampi fries, served with sweet pickled root veg and tartar sauce are gently breaded and cleverly seasoned with a touch of powdered Scampi Fries®.
Portions are generous; a starter of scallops ‘Rockefeller’ features three mighty Portavogie-sourced specimens on the shell with lashings of creamed spinach, smoked bacon and garlic crumb, but lacks the expected aniseed hit of Pernod. A hefty sugar-pit cured bacon chop, topped with a poached egg and parsley sauce is everything it should be: sweet, salty and succulent. A special of roast partridge (which turns out to be a plump brace; we get through one and take the other home) had spent a little too long in the oven. Dessert is skipped, understandably.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This is a fantastic, quirky, clever, all-day diner in an unexpected location that, if it were in Belfast, could hold its own. While there’s no knocking the provenance of the produce, the cooking occasionally lacks precision. But at this price it won’t stop me becoming a regular.
Total for two, excluding service: £73.15
Our punter says…
At 6:30pm The Bull & Ram was already bustling, with only two tables left – a good sign. But despite the busy atmosphere, we were attended to remarkably quickly and our enquiry about the Himalayan salt-ageing of the meat was answered confidently. The restaurant manager, Darryl, helped with our wine selection and recommended a Ben Marco Argentinian Malbec.
A starter of scampi fries, a take on a pub snack of the same name, was small pieces of scampi tail in a well-seasoned coating, served with pickled vegetables and leaves. The piquancy of the pickles was a superb accompaniment.
We ordered a 40-day aged ribeye steak with a peppercorn sauce, chips fried in beef dripping and buttered greens. For me, there’s nothing quite like a good ribeye for succulence and flavour, and this one fitted the bill to a tee. The chips took me back a few decades to when everyone had a pot of dripping for frying and vegetable oils were unheard of. The creamy peppercorn sauce was a subtle complement to the steak and didn’t overpower the chef’s seasoning.
For dessert, Bramley apple crumble wasn’t a great success. The crumble was a roasted, nutty topping and not what I was expecting – I wouldn’t have picked it had the nuts been mentioned on the menu. The apple underneath, however, was beautifully spiced and sharp as Bramley should be. Homemade ice cream on the side was delicious and by far the best part of the dish. As I didn’t make much inroad into the crumble, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it didn’t make it onto the bill.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You need to be at the top of your game if you’re going to charge these prices in this locality, so the current popularity of The Bull & Ram is testament to how well they’re doing. The restaurant has been converted from an Edwardian butcher’s shop and the tasteful decor took away some of the bareness of the original tiles and meat rails. Plus, there’s an interesting display of old meat cleavers at the rear where we were seated. With that and its buzzy atmosphere, excellent meat dishes and great service, The Bull & Ram is certainly on my list of venues to visit again.
Total for two, excluding service: £118
1 Dromore St