Danni Barry has eschewed the bright lights of Belfast for the rural setting of Craigavon, County Armagh. Andy Lynes reports
In 2016, when Danni Barry achieved a Michelin star (the late Myrtle Allen was the first Irish woman to achieve one), her career path seemed set. As head chef of Eipic restaurant in Belfast, she was running the kitchen of local celebrity chef Michael Deanes’ flagship restaurant, and, as such, a key player in one of the most successful and resilient restaurant groups in the city. Surely there was more to come from such a dynamic pairing?
Fast-forward to November 2017 and Barry has upped sticks and headed to a stone-built rural pub near the village of Craigavon, 20 miles south-west of Belfast, serving rustic, hearty dishes such as slow-cooked beef cheek with grilled spring onions and horseradish mash (£16). So, what’s an award-winning, sophisticated, urban chef doing in a place like this?
“The owners of Clenaghans approached me and said they were looking for a new head chef. When I came to see the building in the setting, I just fell for it a wee bit, I suppose. If you wanted to find a real rural Irish pub restaurant, this is as authentic as it gets,” says Barry, who has previous experience working in the countryside as the former head chef of Rogan & Co in Cartmel, Cumbria, and now heads up a brigade of seven full-time chefs and one part-timer. “When you’re here, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually, we’re on the main route from Belfast International Airport and we’re only 25 minutes outside the city. We’ve found that people will travel here for the food.”
The location is unquestionably idyllic, but it has presented Barry with a conundrum: how to please both her loyal customer base, who have followed her from Eipic, and the local audience. The answer appears to be to give everyone plenty of choice, with four menus (plus a six-item children’s menu which includes chargrilled steak with a choice of sauce for £9), all of which change at least every eight weeks.
The lunch and dinner à la carte lists four snacks, including “wee” scotch eggs, pork, sage and onion with mustard (£4); four starters priced at £7-£9; five main courses from £19 and four desserts, all at £6.50. An ‘early’ menu, available from 5pm to 6.30pm, has the same snacks and starters as the à la carte, but nine mains all under £18 and a grill section of meats from Peter Hannan, including a 500g côte de boeuf (£46) and his signature sugar-pit bacon chop (£24). A vegetarian menu with three starters and mains and a set Sunday lunch (with two courses for £20 and three for £25) complete the quartet.
“We’re still trying to find the balance between what the customer wants and what we want to cook. We want the menus to be on the right side of ambitious but still manageable. I’m thinking about putting on a set four-course menu of things that we want to run alongside the à la carte, just for the chefs to be a wee bit more creative, as well as for people who come for that experience. It will be £40 at the most; that’s what the level is here, something that makes it accessible.”
Although Barry has embraced the countryside, she hasn’t completely left her city ways behind her. “Eipic was 30 seats and offered a tasting menu, but here, where we’ve got 60 seats, that’s obviously not going to work. But the sauces are made the same way and there are a lot of the techniques that are still the same. We still have the same focus on local produce and cooking it quite simply.”
One best-selling dish that was a signature for Barry at Eipic is hake (landed by day boat at Portavogie or Kilkeel harbour), Hispi cabbage, crushed potatoes, seaweed butter and roast bone sauce (£19), described as “magical” by The Irish Times. “We skin the hake. The tails we’ll use probably for fish and chips and the nice meaty bit we brine in salt water for 30 minutes to firm it up. We wrap it in Chinese leaf or Hispi cabbage, depending on the season. We keep turning it on the plancha so you’re colouring the cabbage and the fish almost steams.”
Barry makes a white fish stock from the bones and roasts the heads to make a brown fish stock (a technique she’d seen while working on board a private yacht in Valencia), then combines the stocks, reduces and finishes with “loads of butter” and lemon juice.
“The focus here is on flavour,” says Barry. “If it doesn’t taste like what it’s supposed to, then we’ve done too much to it, we’ve mucked it up.”
From the menu
Curried duck samosas, mint, cucumber, yogurt £7
Crab risotto, sweetcorn, Parmesan £9
Soused mackerel, sweet pickled vegetables, dill and mustard dressing £8
Salt-baked swede, grilled cabbage, honey and grain mustard £13
Spiced monkfish, chickpea stew £18
Mourne mountain lamb, black garlic, smoked aubergine, greens £22
Caramel tart, coffee and white chocolate cream £6.50
Lemon cup, rhubarb and rose jam, warm madeleine £6.50
Chocolate pot, miso caramel, peanut butter ice-cream £6.50
Clenaghans, 48 Soldierstown Road, Craigavon BT67 0ES