I feel like I want to preface this whole thing by saying we really wanted to like Bull & Ram and that there is so much about it that is beautiful. The New York style of the old butchery interior, that you walk in from Ballynahinch village but find yourself in the meatpacking district. The focus on a great local meat supplier, Hannan Meats. The laid-back approach that invites you to feel at home. And there was a lot we did enjoy. The little pot of mouth-pleasing tapenade that came with the breads and took them from tasty to ding dong level. The cucumber martini that I could literally smell coming from 20 paces it was so fresh. The chunky water glasses that felt nice in my hand and weren’t the usual Ikea-bought tumblers (there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just nice to see something with a little more thought behind it) or the skimpy cups you have to refill about 4 times to make up a glass of water. The apple sauce that accompanied the pork scratchings – not too sweet, full of flavour.
It’s clear that Bull & Ram is the new hotspot in the area by the customers of my dad’s age who, like us, were happy to sit down at a 9pm table. Likewise the many (and famous) rosy reviews left our mouths watering in anticipation as we spent several evenings the week before in salivatory impatience at our Saturday night eating prospects.
So, I really don’t want to have to write this word, but…
…there were things that could have been great that weren’t quite.
Food – my sugar-pit cured bacon chop was tasty, bronzed and caramel sticky on the outside and tender as I cut into it. I’m sorry I had to ask for salt for my egg (which I was jokingly told was kept under lock and key), but for me and many, eggs are one thing that really need it so I am also not sorry, a sprinkling of Maldon wouldn’t have been out of order. Maybe the parsley sauce was in place of salt, but it wasn’t quite enough for me. The beef dripping chips needed just a few seconds more to be perfect and the spicy sweet potato fries were tasty but the seasoning made them a bit of an odd side order menu item. For me, onion rings, unlike the heel of a Nutty Krust, are better when they are skinny; they were fine. Mr T’s steak was cooked exactly as he ordered, a little chewy but that’s rump – what you sacrifice in tenderness you gain in flavour. He said his bone marrow gravy was “all right.”
Atmosphere – There’s something really important about how a place makes you feel; something that you can’t fake and you can’t design. They say so much depends on your first impression, what hits you when you walk in the door. In Bull & Ram if your table is by the entrance, unfortunately someone else’s first impression bumps you in the back when they come in, but they’re working with a tight space that partly contributes to the intimate warmth they’re trying to create so it’s a tough one to resolve. We weren’t sure where to put ourselves when we came in so I felt like we were lurking like a chaperone beside a poor couple who may or may not have been on a first date, which must’ve been romantic for them. In the same way the bar in the middle of the restaurant is a beautiful feature, but causes its own distractions with boxes being carried through to stock the bar and bins being emptied. Again,no-one’s fault really, but part of the magic of a restaurant is that you don’t see the humdrum you accept in your own house. I loved the blue jeans and red aprons worn by the waiting staff that said, “We’re laid back, you should be too.” I wasn’t sure the shabby-chic mishmash of chairs went with the Quality Meats-vibe of the cleavers on the wall and edgy old butchery tiles though. The service was fine, a bit haphazard but I guess that’s a Saturday night. It felt like it was up to us to ask for things, no-one asked if everything was ok for us – not even mid-mouthful which is usually catnip for waiting staff.
Overall, despite my criticisms which I promise are well-meaning, we had a nice meal, and part of our difficulty is that we get out so rarely with two small people ruling our lives that when we do, we need it to be awesome. This sets places up for a challenge straight away, which I fully acknowledge is no easy task – some might say Herculean. Mr T and I are hard to please, we know that. All in all, it was fine, but fine doesn’t really cut it for me. I don’t want to be unkind, it’s so close to being really good that I wish I could give the glowing review I’m dying to, but there were too many little niggles to let go, which makes me sad.
Forgot to mention Paddy Kelly’s pub on the square we gin and guinness’d in before dinner – definitely a hidden gem where you could easily wile away a rain-soaked afternoon or a chilly Sunday evening – chance would be a fine thing for us, but sure. Jawbox gin, a wodge of honeycomb and smattering of juniper berries, it’s the way to go.
Photo credit goes to Mr T