From infrastructure to public services, there is a feeling that those who live west of the Bann – the river effectively dividing Northern Ireland – are disadvantaged when it comes to investment and opportunity.
I grew up way out west, in the countryside between Cookstown and Omagh, but in the early 2000s moved to Belfast for university and ended up staying there as living and working in the city suits my lifestyle.
That doesn’t mean I have forgotten my culchie – an Irish word for rural folk – roots and will not hear an ill word spoken about my home county Tyrone, especially from east coast natives who imagine civilisation itself ends, a la the hills have eyes, about 20 miles outside Belfast.
This summer, I had the chance to dine at two lovely restaurants in Tyrone and in this post intend to prove that while the roads may be inferior out in the sticks, there is certainly no mediocrity when it comes to the quality of restaurants west of the Bann – so Belfast urbanities take note.
My first outing was a celebratory Christening meal at District 80 in Cookstown- a restaurant I had heard many good reports about – situated behind the Oldtown Inn.
I remembered District 80 from my younger days as a function room and popular choice for eighteenth birthday parties; now it is a stylish space with grey and purple décor adding a touch of glamour.
The restaurant was packed when our party arrived and looking at the modern menu which offered plenty of choice and great value for money – a three-course set menu costs £22 – it was easy to see why.
Deciding to skip the starters, it was no easy feat choosing a main course as there were many dishes that tickled my taste buds, from monkfish to peppered chicken and even the burger with all the trimmings sounded good.
In the end I choose none of the above and settled on the Massaman curry – wok fried vegetables in a rich sauce served with spiced basmati rice and poppadoms.
All at once the sauce, which I had never tried before was delicately spiced and creamy with a slight hint of coconut that complimented the crunchy stir fried vegetables. The rice and crispy poppadum soaked up the delicious curry and l managed to scoff the lot.
Husband ordered the peppered chicken served with champ, peppercorn sauce and homemade tobacco onions which was rich and flavoursome. It is hard to believe there was a time simple fried onions dressed up food, before crispy tobacco onions found their way on to plates!
While I was more than satisfied with my main meal, it was difficult to resist dessert and the sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and salted caramel ice-cream tempted me into submission.
The sponge was light and moist and the saltiness of the ice-cream cut through the overall sweetness, but the real dessert showstopper was the apple crumble, served with custard in mini milk churns.
I was a big admirer of these cute tin jars, thus proving that eye-catching crockery can be as impactful as good food and I will definitely visit District 80 again, if only to find out where I can find myself some churns.
My second outing on home turf was to The Millstone bar and restaurant, just outside Omagh.
I have dined at this restaurant before and was impressed by the wide ranging menu with a good selection of gourmet, traditional and quirky dishes. At The Millstone, steak is the star of the show, with a variety of cuts and sizes on offer, but fish, chicken and veggie lovers are also well catered for – the vegetable tagine looked incredible.
To start with I had potato skins topped with bacon and cheese, served with salad and a delicious tomato relish which was the perfect sized portion to tide me over until dinner arrived.
The seafood chowder and mussels also seemed to be popular starters and I was quite envious when husband’s elegant plate of black pudding, asparagus and soft boiled egg arrived.
Being a fussy eater, I rarely order chicken when I am out – it is neither fair on myself nor fellow diners to witness the surgery performed before one morsel of meat passes my lips, but the Piri Piri chicken with couscous and homemade flatbreads sounded so good I decided to break the rules.
The chicken was succulent, juicy and nicely spiced. The couscous – not the easiest grain to flavour – had a lovely citrus zest and the flatbread was soft and fluffy. All mains included a side order and I greedily choose chips when in hindsight I probably should have had the salad – there is no doubting the generosity of portion sizes at The Millstone.
A satisfied silence surrounded our table as we tucked into our main courses and everyone seemed more than satisfied with their choices and I must admit the fillet steaks looked really good.
Husband and I shared dessert to round off the meal, opting for what we hoped would be the lighter way to enjoy pudding – a meringue stack, elaborately filled with whipped cream, ice-cream, crushed maltsters and a toffee sauce. This decadent and sweet dessert was pure heaven and I might attempt to recreate it myself, this time minus the sharing.
Overall the meal was really delicious with all dishes well-considered, but I did have one slight issue with the service which was slow and inconsistent – the drinks arrived in dribs and drabs throughout. It is fair to say though, the restaurant was very busy and the waiting staff seemed to be under a lot of pressure.
That however is a small gripe and it wouldn’t put me off returning to The Millstone – that fillet steak has my name all over it!