Roly Graham is well known in Northern Irish dining circles, having cooked at a number of high profile restaurants and earned an enviable reputation when head chef at the nearby Inn at Castledawson, so there was plenty of interest when he opened his own restaurant here in 2012.
Centrally located, it’s in modest premises (just across the road from Laurel Villa, see entry), a long room with some quite dramatic flourishes offsetting the otherwise plain décor, and bare topped tables simply set up with cutlery on a folded napkin.
There isn’t space for a reception area but the friendly staff do their best to make sure that new arrivals aren’t waiting around too long for their table and, once seated, it’s all about the food.
The style is ‘Modern Irish Cuisine’ and the bar was set high from the outset, with seasonally led menus changing daily and an emphasis on quality ingredients - and, in particular, local suppliers such as Rock Farm Produce in Knockloughrim, who grow vegetables especially for the restaurant.
Accessible pricing has also has been a key feature from day one and, while apparently mutually exclusive, these twin aims seem to have been achieved without compromise.
An early dinner menu, in particular, offers outstanding value at just £12 for two courses and, although side orders are charged separately (and there may be one or two supplements for more luxurious dishes), it is by no means a cut price offering and a third course is an option at just £4.75.
Diners who enjoyed Roly’s cooking in Castledawson will not be surprised to find a bias towards fish and seafood. Starters of Portavogie scallops (served in modern classic style with Clonakilty black pudding and on-trend cauliflower, so long the Cinderella of vegetables) and salt’n’chilli Kilkeel squid with Asian salad & dip are rightly popular, while appealing main courses of whole lemon sole with the house Nicoise garnish and basil butter or pan fried hake with garlic crushed potatoes and herb cream are not only perfectly cooked but also show how the balancing act between quality and cost is achieved by judicious choice of ingredients and carefully balanced elements in each dish.
Meat and poultry lovers need not feel put out though, with plenty of chicken, Silverhill duckling and pork dishes to choose from - and excellent steaks and slow cook beef, which is obviously sourced from a good supplier.
Attention to detail is outstanding from the start: there is a charge for the delicious freshly baked breads but it would be a shame to miss them; a little truffle oil lifts a potato & leek soup into the special occasion bracket, and homely bread & butter pudding is given a touch of class by making it with brioche.
A well selected wine list has interesting tasting notes and half a dozen good value house wines (in three sizes - bottle, carafe and 175ml glass); given the growing numbers of non drinkers, it would be nice to see a better choice of soft drinks.
Special theme nights are regularly held throughout the year - a Wine Tasting Dinner, perhaps, or a Fish night - and well worth keeping an eye on.