Wild about Harry's

 

It has been Donegal’s best kept secret but, says Derek O’Connor, rave reviews and a major award are about to change all that for Harry’s

HARRY’S BAR, at the gateway to Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula, is already the stuff of legend, and it’s spoken about with the hushed enthusiasm afforded a true find. You haven’t done Donegal until you’ve done Harry’s. This particular best-kept secret is about to go ballistic, however, thanks to a series of love letters from critics coupled with a number of high-profile accolades including, most recently, the Bord Bia sponsored “Just Ask” Restaurant of the Year at the Georgina Campbell awards.

Harry’s is in Bridgend, smack dab at the border between Donegal and Derry. Over the decades the building has played host to everything from a road house to a Chinese eaterie. Harry Doherty bought the derelict premises two decades ago and turned it into a local hostelry. These days, his sons Donal and Kevin oversee proceedings with a fine eye for detail, coupled with a keen entrepreneurial spirit.

Working with talented head chef Ray Moran, they’ve transformed Harry’s into a celebration of sustainable dining, using the finest produce the region has to offer, including dry-aged steaks and a winning fish and chorizo pie. For vegetarians, there’s a formidable wild mushroom, spinach, pea and tarragon gnocchi. And all at reasonable prices.

“It has been a long, hard process to change thinking locally, and to find the food that we wanted to use,” says Donal Doherty, explaining their decision seven years ago to construct a menu defined by local produce. “We wanted to be different. We wanted to create something that was just from Inishowen. We skipped the distributors, cut out the middlemen and went straight to the farms. We’ve had to work with farmers directly, to turn them on to the thinking that ‘I will buy your pork if you go organic, if you go rare breed’. We’re buying full fore-quarters of beef, and using every piece, and that gives us tremendous value which we can then pass on to the customer.”

Harry’s beef is dry-aged in their own hanging room and it melts in the mouth. Fish is selected from a Greencastle boat every morning (we can recommend the gurnard, a sorely undervalued fish often used as lobster bait), and their rice pudding with Armagnac prunes and vanilla ice-cream, is something that stays in the memory.

The secret to Harry’s success, Doherty insists, is to transform perceived disadvantages into potential opportunities whenever possible, be it a less-than-ideal location or the vicissitudes of a wildly unstable border economy.

“Fluctuations in sterling have had a serious impact on our business, when you consider that 50 per cent of our customers come from the other side of the border. It was tough when sterling depreciated in 2008, and we felt the full brunt of the recession right off, but it just made us more determined. You have to remain unique, simple as that. You can’t compete on price, but you stay competitive. We’re asking people to travel that extra mile, but we’re going the extra mile to deliver. And we’ve just had our best year.”

Harry’s Bar serves as a perfect gateway to the Inishowen peninsula, a role Donal Doherty embraces with considerable gusto. When he’s not reeling off a list of choice suppliers in the area, from fisherman Robert McKinley to Malin-based eggman Connie McGonigle (he doesn’t believe in being cagey about his food sources), he’s recommending any number of local sites of interest. You can’t, he says, go wrong with the Famine Village on Doagh Island, for starters.

The region has enjoyed sizable growth in tourism recently, and a namecheck in the influential Bridgestone Guide as one of the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland didn’t hurt Harry’s at all. But any Donegal business still has to survive those long, harsh winters.

“We’re doing business in the middle of a recession,” says Doherty, “and we’re totally reliant on our regulars to keep us going, seven days a week, all through the winter months so we’re constantly working hard to bring new people through that door, because there’s an 80 per cent chance they’ll come back. It’s about being creative. Inishowen is a totally unique place, and our restaurant tries to celebrate that.”

Harry’s Bar Restaurant, Bridgend, Inishowen, Co Donegal. Tel: 074-9368444, harrys.ie

Harry’s pot roast of dry-aged brisket of beef

2 each of peeled and chopped carrots, onions and leeks

Handful of fresh herbs and lots of garlic.

1 bay leaf, two juniper berries and five peppercorns

2kg unrolled brisket (or shoulder/blade)

1 litre chicken stock

2 glasses red wine

Throw everything into a deep casserole dish and set the beef on top so that it is three-quarters submerged in the stock. Cover with tinfoil and bake for four to five hours at 130 degrees/gas mark two until the beef is tender. Slice and serve with a ladle of juice and organic Donegal baby potatoes. Keep the stock for the base of a great soup.

Harry’s signature dishes

28-day well-hung sirloin steak from Edenmore Farm, Lifford, served in béarnaise sauce

Greencastle gurnard, served with Robert McKinley’s green crab bisque risotto

Hamilton Farm organic rare-breed pork plate

Wild Inch Island pheasant, organic red cabbage and beetroot from An Grianan farm

Whiteoaks organic salad with Connie’s free-range Malin egg and Hamilton’s bacon