Jim Mulholland’s new restaurant in Comber, Co. Down, is his first under his own name. He had spent nine years working at Ballyrobin Country Lodge near Belfast International Airport as Head Chef, where he had a good reputation and was known for training new talent. He was also a part-time lecturer at South Eastern Regional College.
Then Jean Christophe Novelli came to eat at Ballyrobin when he was on the way to the Clipper Festival in Derry. Jean was really impressed by Jim’s cooking, and said he couldn’t understand why the place didn’t have a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Less than a year later, Jim was Executive Head Chef at Restaurant Novelli at the AC Marriott Hotel on Belfast’s City Quays.
“I suppose I had done all I set out to do at Ballyrobin and I had always admired Jean Christophe so that is why I made that move,” says Jim.
Several months later, Jim was doing a cookery demo at Indie Fude deli on Comber and afterwards he was approached by local businessman John Horner, who told him he had a vacant restaurant to let in the village at No 14 on the Square.
He says he decided to take the plunge because, like every chef, he had always dreamed of having his own place. He also really liked the village of Comber and its growing reputation in the food world.
Comber Early Potatoes have PGI status. Johnny McDowell’s Indie Fude deli just down the street is an Aladdin’s Cave of Irish artisan produce, and the farms surrounding Comber are known for their vegetable crops and superb meat.
Six weeks in and things are going very well indeed. The menus are like a directory of Irish produce such as Lough Neagh eel and pollack, Lisdergan beef, Achill Mountain Lamb, Mooncoin beetroot, Goatsbridge trout and Ard Mhacha shiitake mushrooms.
The menu is divided into snacks, entrees, mains and desserts. Sample snacks include lamb scrumpet, crispy marjoram and salsa verde. Entrees include smoked duck egg, black bacon, brown bread and ferments; and mains such as butter poached Halibut, samphire, Lough Neagh eel and risotto.
“I want the food to be warm, comforting and to leave the diner remembering the taste for days to come,” says Jim.
He has also made sure to have a separate vegetarian menu. Starters include tenderstem broccoli, black garlic, poppy seeds and black olive dressing. Main options include fregola, witlof, yeasted cauliflower, raisins, capers and mint.
There are four desserts, each priced at £6. Each one is extremely accomplished. There are highlights such as a salted caramel and hazelnut macaron with rosewater, and mint sorbet with rose opaline. The kids menu is a cut above with in-house breadsticks and hummus being one of the starters.
“It’s early days but I am happy with how it is going,” says Jim. “We do a roaring trade in scones and coffees in morning and people can sit outside in the courtyard with their dogs. I am going to start working soon on the walled garden and we have turned one of the outside spaces into a bakery prep area. Upstairs we can fit 24 in for private dining. It’s busy but it’s all good!”