At the River Room in the Galgorm Resort & Spa, head chef Chris Rees is producing sophisticated dishes using local ingredients. Andy Lynes went to visit
In August 2013, after spending three years working under Chris Bell (now head chef of the nearby Eagle at Galgorm Castle), Chris Rees took the reins of the River Room, the 40-cover fine-dining restaurant at the luxurious Galgorm Resort and Spa, set in 163 acres of parkland in the Antrim countryside 30 minutes north of Belfast.
Rees started his career in Belfast at the age of 15, washing dishes in a local restaurant, then took positions at the city's Malmaison and Ten Square hotels. A stint on the cruise ships brought him into contact with Marco Pierre White while working in the White Room restaurant on board P&O's Ventura ("He taught
me how to make his signature spaghetti lobster dish; it was a shock to actually have him there showing me something," says Rees) before returning to Belfast to work as chef de partie at the then Michelin-starred Deanes and as junior sous chef at the well regarded Barking Dog gastropub.
Rees began as the River Room's junior sous chef before working as Bell's sous chef. He now has a sous chef, pastry chef and part time college student working under him and is hoping to fill a vacant commis chef role soon. The River Room currently shares kitchen space with the hotel's two other restaurants, Gillies bar & grill and Fratelli's Italian, but will have its own dedicated kitchen later this year in a converted wine cellar.
The restaurant opens for dinner Wednesday to Sunday, with around 35 covers per service, mostly comprising hotel guests. Rees offers an à la carte menu that changes every five weeks as well as five-course (£55) and seven-course (£65) tasting menus. Sunday lunch, which draws a local crowd, costs £23.95 for two
courses and £27.95 for three.
"I try to make sure all the produce is Irish apart from a few unavoidable things like foie gras," says Rees. "Our 35-day aged beef comes from Hillstown Farm about eight miles away, where they brew their own stout and feed the cattle on the spent grains."
The beef is a best seller and Rees cooks the loin sous vide in its own rendered fat and serves it with an oxtail croquette. "We brine the oxtail in water, sugar, salt, cinnamon, corian-der seeds, red peppercorns, star anise, thyme, garlic and bay and braise it in the usual manner then bind it with pomme purée made with smoked cream and caramelised onions," he explains. "We set the mixture then wind potato string around the croquettes and deep fry them."
The dish is completed with a slice of roast foie gras, Madeira sauce and pickled heritage carrots. Other locally sourced ingredients include honey made in Massereene, which Rees makes into a parfait dessert, and black pudding from Gracehill Fine Food in nearby Ballymena that Rees serves with Hillstown Farm lamb.
"We bone and trim whole saddles of lamb, then hammer them out and roll them with the black pudding and minced trim. We brine and confit lamb belly trimmed from the saddle then breadcrumb it and deep fry it, and serve it with peas and girolles, olive oil mash and a lamb demi glace. There's no dairy in the dish so it's quite light."
Although Rees's food exhibits both clarity of flavour and ideas, there's a lot going on in each dish. "The prep list can be massive. There might only be three or our flavours but there will be lots of different textures and variations of each element so there might be pickled, creamed and roast celeriac on a dish."
The dining room, with its linen-covered tables, high-backed booths and calming views over the grounds and river, has a special occasion feel and The Cellar section of the well chosen wine list sensibly allows plenty of scope to splash out. Who wouldn't want to enjoy a Lafite Rothschild 1er Cru Classe 1982 with that beef? But if you can't afford £8,160, how about a Simonsig Estate Tiara 2009 Bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch at £44?
A recent review in the Belfast Telegraph said the River Room had ‘lost none of its magic' since Rees took the helm and called the restaurant ‘the pinnacle of formal Ulster hospitality'. National reviewers, and guidebooks, take note.
From the menu
• Ravioli of Strangford lobster & crab, shellfish consommé, leeks, crispy capers, radish & fennel £9
• Carpaccio of 33-day aged beef, truffled morels, English asparagus, Parmesan custard, oxtail croquette, watercress £8
Mains • Saddle of Hillstown Farm rare breed pork, glazed cheek, black pudding, walnuts, parsnips, apple, mustard & cider £23
• Roast fillet of halibut, celeriac and lemon purée, samphire, pomme rösti, chorizo and squid £24
Desserts • Passion fruit soufflé, mango sorbet £7.50
• Apple and almond, candied almonds, apple sorbet £7.50
River Room Galgorm Resort & Spa
Galgorm, County Antrim,
Northern Ireland BT42 1EA