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Kelan puts beef back on the menu

February 27th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
Kelan puts beef back on the menu
Venue Spotlight
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Intro: Everybody says nice things about the Bull and Ram, the audacious Ballynahinch eatery that represents Derry chef, Kelan McMichael’s first proprietorial foray into the increasingly unforgiving arena of culinary endeavour.

Diners have been quick to embrace the undeniable appeal of The Bull and Ram Restaurant in Ballynahinch.

They’ve quickly taken to the proprietor, Kelan McMichael’s carefully nuanced approach to what is, essentially, a steak-house menu.

And they’ve been swift to embrace his clever – if slightly accidental – new vision for his Dromore Street premises.

Kelan has artfully combined everything you might expect to find in a modern, high-end restaurant with the old-world practicality of a genuine, Edwardian butcher’s shop. The result is a dining room quite unlike anything that you’re likely to find elsewhere, locally at any rate.

What is doubly remarkable though is that this effective fusion of hospitality and turn-of-the-century retail came about almost by accident.

“When we originally began work on the place, everything was covered by wood panelling,” recalls Kelan. “We began tearing it all down and came across the original Edwardian butcher-shop tiling underneath…I tend to think that if something’s not broken, then it doesn’t need to be fixed.”

As the old tiling emerged, Kelan noticed the hand-painted motifs which appeared in some of the squares – a bull and a ram – and realised that he’d found the name of his new eatery.

There was other evidence of the building’s former status as a butcher’s shop too, including the original meat-hanging rail which now encloses the restaurant’s dining space.

“A lot of people have said to me that when they come in here, it’s like going into a Parisian bistro in the 1930’s,” says Kelan. “We have the original tiled flooring and the old herringbone ceiling, it’s still very much the original butcher’s shop building. I think it’s like taking a step back in time.”

The original awning at the front of the restaurant is also a relic from bygone days. In fact, Kelan believes that he was the first person to open the awning in more than 50 years!

And at the more conventional-looking rear end of the restaurant, there is a further reminder of the building’s former tenants in the form of Kelan’s collection of 13th-century meat cleavers!

Thirty-eight-year-old Kelan McMichael comes originally from Londonderry, and it was in the city’s Beech Hill hotel that he launched his career as a commis chef at the age of 17.

“I was completely overwhelmed at first,” he concedes, also admitting that he’d done well at school and that his parents had expected him to pursue a university education.

Undeterred, Kelan pressed ahead with his chosen career at the Beech Hill:

“I worked with an all-French kitchen team,” he recalls. “They were a tight clique, and you had to keep the head down. I worked a 65-hour week for £120, but it was a great grounding in classic French cuisine. I learned a lot of stuff there that I am still using today…They aim to use every part of the animal, and that’s an ethos I try to follow at The Bull and Ram.”

As is often the case, the lure of international travel eventually overcame Kelan, and he travelled to the States where he enjoyed a brief stint working for acclaimed French chef and restaurateur, Daniel Boulud in New York before moving to the Florida coast where he spent 18 months working primarily in seafood restaurants.

On his return, at the age of 20, he signed up with Noel McMeel, who was then the executive chef at Castle Leslie. He stayed for five years and was eventually made head chef under Noel. The venue was renowned at the time as a celebrity haunt – visits by famous people were almost a weekly occurrence, says Kelan – and he catered for an array of glitzy weddings during his time there, including the marriage of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

From there, he joined Paul Rankin’s team at the former Roscoff restaurant then worked with Derek Creagh at Deane’s during the period in which that restaurant gained the Michelin star which it would end up hanging onto for the next 12 years.

Six years at the four-star Rathmullan House in Co. Donegal followed before Kelan returned to County Down where he opened the Poacher’s Pocket gastro-pub and accompanying farm shop for Ronan and Jennie Sweeney’s Balloo Inns group.

He left that venue in February last year after two-and-a-half years and opened the doors of the Bull and Ram in June.

“I don’t care what people say, I think you need 18 to 20 years to learn the business end of this industry,” says Kelan. “It was only after I had done what I did that I felt confident enough to do it for myself. It takes that time to develop your own style of food and so on.”

The Bull and Ram is undoubtedly a culinary departure for Ballynahinch and Kelan admits that before he opened its doors, he wasn’t at all sure that it would do. In the event, however, local foodies have embraced his innovative approach:

“This has been a mad year,” he tells LCN. “It’s hard to believe that we have only been open for nine months. In that time, we’ve won three awards in total, we’ve been reviewed by Jay Rainer [who called The Bull and Ram “a class act”], and Charles Campion has been in with us four or five times. We’re extremely busy, we are number two on Trip Advisor in County Down, and we’re also hoping to be in the Micheline Guide this year.”

The Bull and Ram is primarily a steakhouse – a designation that fits well amidst the surviving relics of the premises’ former incarnation – but there are lots of other delights on the menu as well, everything from Mourne lamb shank pie and sugar pit-cured bacon chops to roasted squash and chickpea curry. And all of it delivered with produce sourced almost exclusively from within the boundaries of County Down.

“We’re introducing local people to new ways of doing things, but we still do the best steaks in the country,” says Kelan. “We’d rather give you two extra ounces of meat on your plate than fill it up with vegetables and sauce.”

Going forward, he doesn’t worry unnecessarily about things like Brexit – he sources everything he needs right on his doorstep, he argues, so importing food isn’t a concern. But he gets annoyed at some things – the FSA’s insistence that menus should carry calorie counts is “ridiculous” and “intrusive”, he says – and he’s genuinely concerned about the current, drastic shortage of hospitality trainees.

Regarding his own business, he’s already planning for expansion:

“I think our brand is really strong, there’s a real honesty in it,” he remarks. “We are in the process of developing it, we’ll have an announcement to make soon, but I would like to see two or three more Bull and Ram restaurants in other places in the future.”

Kelan also admits to a real love of bread-making and would love to have his own bakery and delicatessen where he bakes bread for sale and use in the restaurants.

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