Harry's paté makes it 1-0 to Donegal
Bridgend, Inishowen, Co Donegal Tel: 074 9368544 - 5 STARS
There were six brown, freshly laid, eggs in the fridge of our cottage when we arrived in Inishowen. The hens that laid them were up the haggard, within pecking distance.
"Donegal people like brown eggs," the farmer told me. "But the ones over the border in Derry like a paler egg. I have a different feed for those hens."
Outside of Dublin, food – like politics – becomes local, and the rivalry can be just as fierce. Where I come from there's much debate about which are better: Harney's blas or the ones from Barron's, while the battle between Piltown and Portlaw apples rages on in an interminable deuce.
It causes ructions when I go back to Waterford with Ui Rathaile and he sides with the enemy orchard – just to be awkward and Derry-like.
But now we are in his territory, eating brown eggs and Doherty's "sassages" on Mike O'Hara's bread. The baps in Derry are better, he tells me, as we drive along Lough Swilly towards the border town of Bridgend, where we are going to review Harry's Bar and Restaurant.
Every petrol – correction – "filling" station on the way has a giant plastic 99 in its forecourt. There's nothing nordies love more than stuffing their bakes with pokes, he says.
I do not like the soulless, suburban look of Harry's. It's on a noisy stretch of the busy, dusty road to Buncrana. It feels a million miles away from our cottage on the cliff, with its wild fuchsia and foxglove, the cows, the view of Culdaff strand and the farmer's friendly dogs. You could do worse that a brown boiled egg for lunch, I reckon, as I consider turning the car around. But Ui Rathaile says we should at least have a look at the menu.
Not for the first time, he was right. This aversion to modernity, with all its smoked glass and brushed steel accoutrements, will be my undoing. Harry's is the fountainhead of good local food in Inishowen.
Inside we were greeted by a stall of homemade jams and chutneys, loaves of bread, bags of granola and porridge boxes of seaweed spaghetti. There was a notice telling us about the farmers' market they host on Saturdays – the vegetables come from their own walled garden, the fish comes fresh from Greencastle, the Dexter bone-in sirloins come from Marshall's herd just down the road in Burt.
Harry, I am humbled.
The lunch menu would put dinner menus in some of the capital's most hyped-up restaurants to shame.
In keeping with the local, seasonal "made in Inishowen" ethos, the menu changes daily. A fiver will buy you a Slow Food sourdough sandwich, served with Harry's walled garden salad leaves. The choice of fillings, the day we visited, included roast beef with horseradish mayonaise and red onion marmalade, Grant's ham with cheddar and tomato chutney or Gubbeen with red onion marmalade. An extra €2 yielded soup, or a bowl of "chip shop chips".
We were bapped out, so we stuck with the formal starter and main course section of the menu. Descriptions of the appetisers ranged from the cryptic: pork stuffed squash lasagne to the laconic: chicken salad. There was also prawn linguini, potato and leek soup, and a duck liver paté and Tamworth pork terrine duo.
Ui Rathaile opted for the paté and terrine. It was nicely presented on a board with chunks of good, stretchy sourdough toast. There was also a wee bowl of very syrupy and delicious red onion marmalade, which worked especially well with the wedge of meaty terrine.
The duck liver paté had a silky, almost whipped texture and a deep gamey flavour – the kind of pungency that demands a big swig of voluptuous red to wash it down. A glass of Domaine des Soulie Cuvée Remy rose to the occasion.
Curious (and sceptical) I went for pork stuffed squash lasagne. There wasn't a scrap of pasta on the plate. It was beautifully assembled on a Moville pottery platter: a hollowed out yellow summer squash, filled with a ball of the sweetest, most tender, slow-cooked shredded pork shoulder. There were hints of fennel, clove and cinnamon in the meat's juices. Splashes of candy pink decorated the plate – beetroot mayonaise? Perhaps. And there was a scattering of purple and green baby kale. It was superb.
I've grown accustomed to paying over the odds for seafood in Dublin. So when I see cod for €13 on a menu, I expected a minnow not a mammoth.
What arrived, however, was the length and breadth of my hand and about two inches thick. The skin scorched and golden, and beneath it, the supple flesh that came apart in glossy white petals. It was a beautiful piece of fish, and I was glad that it didn't land in some chipper to be battered and abused.
Instead, it was bathed in a wickedly rich basil butter sauce and decorated with kale, braised endive and a sweet baby radish split down the middle. Welcome to Michelin territory – at a fraction of the cost.
Ui Rathaile opted for a "famous well hung Donegal steak" – an 8oz rump with a salty caramelised crust, perfectly pink to the centre and oozing deep, savoury juices.
It was topped with two crisp frisbees of battered onion and accompanied by a small pot of dark, silky gravy. The killer touch here was the side of veg from Harry's walled garden: roasted carrots that were sweeter and brighter than candy, a cloud of mashed buttery spuds and sautéed kale that was pungent, leafy, and crunchy. Like the cod, it left you feeling not so much spoiled as ruined, because you know it doesn't get any better than this.
For dessert, we split an apple bakewell, which came with crème anglaise and a scoop of intensely creamy vanilla ice-cream.
Predictably, Ui Rathaile said he'd prefer a tart, so I polished it off and spent the next hour trying to make amends for my gluttony by walking to Grianan of Aileach.
Gazing down from the ancient summit into Tyrone and Derry and off into Inishowen, I waivered between awe and envy. Next week we're going down to my people. Tramore – you've got a lot of work to do.
TYPICAL DISH: Foyle Fisherman's Co-op mackerel with beetroot and black pudding
RECOMMENDED: Greencastle cod with kale, radish and lemon and basil butter
THE DAMAGE: €67.20 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, three glasses of wine and two coffees
ON THE STEREO: Inaudible
AT THE TABLE: Nordies