Back Inn the fight against some very stiff com­pe­ti­tion

This coun­try pub in Hills­bor­ough has upped its game con­sid­er­ably with a makeover and great food, but still needs to fo­cus on the easy wins

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD -

It’s one of the most charm­ing lit­tle pubs in the North. Be­hind the tiny door is a tiny lounge with hob­bit fur­ni­ture and flag­stone floor. It’s com­pelling and beau­ti­ful and just the job for vis­it­ing fam­ily and friends who may still have cer­tain views about the North. The Hill­side Inn in Hills­bor­ough takes the bad look off by re­mind­ing us that lovely coun­try pubs still ex­ist.

We’re not good at pre­serv­ing ru­ral built en­vi­ron­ments, those former lit­tle mar­ket towns that used to bus­tle with live­stock mar­kets, preach­ers and poitin sell­ers. They’re ei­ther vis­ually wrecked by flags on lamp­posts or hasty, 20th cen­tury com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ments, or both.

Take a look at old ar­chive shots of ru­ral Ire­land and you’ll see there was a ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­tural style that had some pres­ence. Not much is left of this, other than in places with mag­i­cal names like Bal­li­nascreen, Augh­na­cloy, Don­agh­more, Cushen­dall, Porta­ferry. And Hills­bor­ough in Co Down.

Hills­bor­ough is dif­fer­ent, how­ever. It is not noted for its sink hous­ing es­tates, and its charm lies in its cho­co­late box pret­ti­ness, a post-war, Blue­birds-Over-the-White-Cliffs-of-Dover kind of scrubbed nos­tal­gia. If Hills­bor­ough was a gen­tle­man, it would be wear­ing Done­gal tweeds and clean wellies.

I re­mem­ber vis­it­ing the Hill­side Inn four years ago when it was no good at all. This sur­prised me at the time be­cause the com­pe­ti­tion in the vil­lage is stiff: The Par­son’s Nose and the Plough are worth the trip out of town. So how could some­thing as bad as the Hill­side sur­vive in a town like Hills­bor­ough? It had dirty ban­quettes, poor light­ing and the wood-burn­ing stove re­mained un­lit, as did the can­dles on the ta­bles. This was not a place to hurry back to.

Fast-for­ward four years and this week­end’s visit was re­mark­ably bet­ter, al­though far from per­fect. The in­te­rior was spruced up, the light­ing was good and there was a happy buzz about it. The food was very good, the servers were alert and friendly and yet the easy wins were over­looked. For in­stance, the wood stove re­mained un­lit. For­tu­nately, the ad­viser had a lighter, so we lit our own can­dle, poised full of ro­man­tic prom­ise in the mid­dle of the ta­ble. Is there any­thing quite so sad and for­lorn as an un­lit fire­place? It’s like look­ing into the mouth of a cold, dead horse, a closed­down amuse­ments park in the win­ter, a derelict house you once lived in. I asked if the stove worked. The server said yes but ex­plained it wasn’t cold enough to light it. I got the logic, but if I ap­plied the same anal­y­sis, I would refuse a pint of icy cold North­bound Pale Ale be­cause I wasn’t thirsty. I wouldn’t turn down a slice of ap­ple pie af­ter my din­ner be­cause I wasn’t hun­gry. If Ed­mund Hil­lary climbed Ever­est be­cause it was there, the fire should be lit for pre­cisely the same rea­son — be­cause it’s there.

It’s the hos­pi­tal­ity that’s in it — the warm, hyp­notic glow, the flick­er­ing light and the sense that you’re in a won­der­fully wel­com­ing place. Who can re­sist the em­brac­ing se­duc­tion of a few flames lick­ing around a bit of wood as you sip your wine and chew on your gar­lic but­ter crab claws?

I usu­ally avoid hot crab claws, but some­thing told me the Hill­side’s would be good. They were so good, in fact, they al­most made me for­get the dead fire­place.

Se­ri­ously big and shelled — so you don’t have to split your fin­gers open and bleed all over your nap­kin — the claws were juicy and moist and full of flavour. The gar­lic but­ter was not sickly or heavy and pro­vided just enough back-taste to sup­port the crab­meat. They weren’t cheap at five for £7.50, but the qual­ity of them jus­ti­fied the price eas­ily.

The pan-seared cod was ab­so­lutely text­book: crispy-skinned, pearly, slip­pery, in­ter­locked chunks of white fish, moist and firm. The cockle cas­soulet be­neath was de­stroyed with too much salt, but could have been top­class. The £15.50 burger and fries were al­most COSY STYLE: worth the money. A re­quest for a rocket salad caused some con­fu­sion and sup­ple­men­tary ques­tions from the kitchen: “You sure you don’t want toma­toes with that? You sure you just want rocket leaves?” The ad­viser ex­plained that, if pos­si­ble, she’d just like a plain rocket salad with maybe a lit­tle shaved parme­san and a few drops of bal­samic. In the end, a rocket salad ap­peared with car­rots and red cab­bage on top.

Th­ese were mi­nor, if mildly ir­ri­tat­ing, blips when you con­sider how mas­sive they im­pact on your time in a place and how easy they are to fix. Yet the Hill­side was def­i­nitely worth a trip.

Just re­mem­ber to bring a lighter. Crab claws x 2 ................................... £15 Burger ........................................... £15.50 Cod on cas­soulet ......................... £14.95 Glass wine ...................................... £5.95 To­tal .............................................. £51.40

The Hill­side Inn is warm and wel­com­ing

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