Caroline Johnston

Image by Caroline Johnston

Now that summer’s begun flirting coquettishly with us, like a Jane Austen character flashing a glimpse of her petticoats, holiday season must soon be upon us.

This presents a number of decisions – Stay at home or go abroad?; City sights or poolside lounging?; Activity-filled action break or peaceful romantic retreat?

Perhaps it’s our recent nuptials or just my soppy disposition but recently I’ve been thinking rather a lot about the ideal place for a loved-up couple to spend a few days away…and I think I’ve found the answer.

A while ago, we were invited to Fermanagh, to the Lough Erne resort. As a county, it’s known for being the land of perpetual precipitation and sure enough we arrived to rain and departed in drizzle. Nonetheless, we were utterly charmed.

Here are 5 reasons I believe it may be Northern Ireland’s most romantic hotel destination.

 

 

1 – The restaurant

Dinner in resort’s Catalina restaurant sets the tone for a weekend’s wooing . The regal cream and gold décor, alongside the cooking of chef Noel McMeel (just named Best Chef in Ulster by Ireland’s Good Eating Guide) and the views over Castle Hume Lough add up to an exceptional dining experience .

Who could fail to be seduced by a menu that includes dishes like wild mushroom ravioli with cep purée and tarragon oil or succulent, pink Thornhill duck breast with roasted artichoke and blackberry and buckthorn gel? From the locally caught salmon among the starters to the Kettyle beef main and Glastry Farm ice cream served with the rhubarb soufflé, we were impressed by the dedication to the best of Northern Ireland produce. The cosmopolitan range of wines, available by glass and bottle, is excellent, with pairing recommendations helpfully included in the menu.

It would be just as easy to fall in love with the surroundings . The arched windows of the dining room frame a beautiful, lakeside backdrop, so if you do get tired of gazing lovingly at your paramour, there’s plenty more to look at!

The soft lighting, unobtrusive service and the way the pillars segment the large dining room helps to create an intimate environment to enjoy a special meal with a special someone.

At around £52 a head for the three course menu, it isn’t cheap, but the quality is unstinting and Noel McMeel and his team’s food is an exercise in skill and imagination.

2 – The rooms

There is a broad range of rooms, suites and lodges (starting from around £115) and while they may vary in terms of size and choice of facilities, they are uniformly elegant and comfortable with rich woods and luxurious fabrics. The traditional décor may not be to every taste, but it has a timeless quality and we enjoyed its old world charm.

The accommodation is spacious and the beds are incredibly comfortable (especially if you like a firm mattress). The bathrooms are also a standout feature, with the Traditional (standard) rooms getting a roll top bath and a brilliant shower. Our suite came with a balcony, a vast four poster bed and a double jacuzzi bath big enough to float the QE2.

Who doesn’t enjoy a long, luxurious soak? The couple-sized bath was a wonderful addition, maintaining the pre-marital idyll. Lynsey could unwind under a blanket of bubbles with a glass of wine, while I sank into a sofa watching the football next door – bliss!

To ensure peak romance, try to get a room facing towards the lough as some of the ‘courtyard’ rooms appear to face onto the carpark.

3 – The five star feel

From the sweeping drive, straight out of Brideshead Revisited to the thick carpets and rich brocade curtains and the Waspish, country club-style restaurant, the hotel feels exclusive.

I’ve experienced a few 5 star hotels that enjoyed their status by dint of ticking certain boxes – swimming pool – check; tiny gymnasium (read set of dumbells and a treadmill) – check; 24 hour reception desk – got that…etc But they didn’t feel sumptuous. This does.

While it is a large hotel, there are lots of little hideaways where you can get lost together. If you time it well, you might two empty wingback chairs flanking the roaring log fire in the Gordon Wilson Library – if so, you’re in for a treat.

The staff are similarly first rate, from the warm welcome by the concierge to the friendly, knowledgeable front of house team in the restaurant.

4 – The views

Fling open the curtains and this is the sort of view that awaits from the lakeside rooms.

It would be difficult not to be inspired by the stunning scenery Fermanagh has to offer. From lush green farmlands, inland waterways to densely forested hills, it’s perfect for lovers of the outdoor life. Despite having a huge appreciation for beautiful countryside the thought of being at one with nature has never been high on Lynsey’s agenda of things to do. Needless to say, she much preferred being able to survey the lovely landscape from the lap of luxury at the Lough Erne resort instead of at close quarters, huddled in a tent in the surrounding wetlands.

We loved just watching the bulrushes gently bending in the wind and seeing the sunlight shimmering on the lakes. This not only is a golfer’s paradise but a prime spot for anyone just needing a bit of restoration for the soul.

5 – The Thai Spa

All guests have free access to the Thai-inspired spa area  – a soothing haven of relaxation. In the morning, the large windows allow sunlight to stream in, making it an uplifting, invigorating place to begin your day. In the evening, the gentle lighting helps to create a more muted, drowse-inducing ambiance.

The 14m infinity pool is long enough to swim a few length, though a bit cool (and public) for canoodling. Guests also have complimentary use of the large jacuzzi and thermal suite (consisting of a steam room filled with eucalyptus vapour – to cleanse your body of impurities, apparently and a light therapy sauna which is supposed to promote skin exfoliation and tissue toning). If you still feel a little tense or want to really treat yourself, there is a huge array of therapies, including several tailored to couples, available in the ten treatment rooms.

Keep an eye on the resort’s own website as it’s frequently updated with special offers on spa treatments and packages.

So, have we tempted you to give the resort a try? Or perhaps you have your own favourite romantic spot? Let us know in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

[Disclaimer – Last year we were invited to try the Lough Erne resort, therefore our stay (aside from drinks and extras, was complimentary. This is not a paid review. Opinions my own.]

 

 

 

One Mars Bar – 260 calories; gin and tonic – 120; smallish slice of brie? About 170.

Just a brief insight into the kind of monotonous maths currently required to maintain a 32″ waist – until after the wedding, at least.

Til then, certain indulgences are well and truly off the menu, including most fried food.

Imagine then my dilemma at receiving an invitation to an award-winning fish and chip restaurant, one we’d been eager to try for months.

‘But no’, came the reply, ‘these are HEALTHY fish and chips’. They even have the awards to prove it.

Last month Fish City landed a haul of two prestigious titles at the UK Fish and Chip Awards (for healthy eating and sustainability).

A small portion from their new healthy eating menu squeaks in at just under 600 calories –  for comparison, around the same as this haddock with cannellini beans and artichokes.

Well, when you put it like that…

Dietary misgivings allayed, we’re seated at a table in the centre of the restaurant, deliberating over the new menu. There’s a familiar look to much of the offering – scampi, battered sausages, chicken goujons, but also something we’re less accustomed to seeing in a chippie – a calorie count.

This tells us, for example, that their scampi contains only 167 calories (putting it in competition with a single boiled egg or a large intake of breath in my favourite late night kebab shop).

Also atypical of a fish and chip shop is Fish City’s décor. Owner Grainne’s Lavery’s interior design background is apparent in the quirky, imaginative touches – resembling a collaboration between Terence Conran and Jack Sparrow – part trendy urban bistro, part grounded gallion.

The swashbuckling style carries on into the kitchen too. Chef Vincent Hurley, whose CV includes Paul Rankin’s Cayenne, is passionate about all things fish, to the point (I’m told) he has been known to wield his wooden spoon, enjoining his boss to test the ‘master sauce’ that will grace his roast cod. All fish is cooked fresh, much of it from Kilkeel and the surrounding waters- no well-traveled, frozen fillets here.

Beyond the chippie staples, they have created a menu that includes dishes like seafood linguine, fish cakes (made with four varieties of fish) and pan-fried hake with crushed potatoes and samphire that would not be out of place in any of Belfast’s top fish restaurants.

 

Our starters arrived – a mix of dainty smoked salmon rolls balanced on blinis; crisp-crumbed squid scattered with seeds and served with ‘slaw, chili sauce and (my personal favourite) garlic aioli as well as a taster of the fish cakes – a conglomeration of salmon, cod, smoked coley and haddock.

We both scoffed the effete smoked salmon in a single bite, enjoying the slight tang from the accompanying pesto before attacking the incredibly moreish golden slivers of squid. The fish cake could have benefited from a little more seasoning, but perhaps suffered from following more forceful flavours. Nonetheless the trading textures of soft fish and crunchy coating made it the ideal way to mop up the remainder of the delicious aioli.

 

 

 

Starters dispatched of, the fish and chips arrive, complete with mushy peas and tartar sauce. The bronzed batter was the colour of the cast of TOWIE, as it should be. So far, so normal.  It wasn’t until I bit into the crunchy cod that it be came apparent something was different.

The brittle shards of batter gave way to tender cod, rather than the sort of heavy, glutinous underlayer of undercooked batter served up in most fish and chip shops. The secret? A milky thin batter that crackled in the hot frier, without absorbing nearly as much oil as a standard mix. The oil of choice is rapeseed, though you can opt for beef dripping and it’s changed daily, another point of distinction.

The chips were similarly non-greasy – hand cut affairs with a crunchy outer layer covering soft, steamed potato inside. Halfway through, as my rate of consumption slowed, I did wonder if their recent sustainability award was a recognition that even this ‘small’ portion could sustain two of me for a full day. A quick Google search showed it had more to do with their MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification – ensuring they only use species of fish that are plentiful and that fishing vessels minimise their environmental impact. It’s something to which Grainne and her husband John are laudably committed – they even run a kids club initiative with local primary schools, educating children on both the health benefits of fish and the importance of protecting the oceans.

For anyone hoping to minimise the impact of fish and chips on their waistline, Fish City may be the ideal solution. For the calorie conscious customer, there is ample range to sustain repeated visits and we will certainly be back.

 

(Image courtesy of Oliver’s – Facebook)

What’s your typical lunch?

Chances are, the same as me – a hastily-scoffed sandwich (home-made, if time allows) or perhaps a slightly insipid salad, sweating in a plastic tub or maybe a bowl of soup heated to thermonuclear temperatures in the office microwave.

But what if you were feeling a little more ambitious and wanted, not only to escape your building, but to slip the surly bonds of the city centre?

The Lisburn Road is one option and a good one, but parking can be tricky. The Ormeau Road suffers similarly and its eateries are fairly spread out. Another is Ballyhackamore, with its growing nucleus of cafés, restaurants and takeaways to suit all appetites. With a fair wind, you can be there in 10 minutes from the middle of the city and there are a plethora of places to park.

There’s a self-contained, village feel to the neighbourhood and Oliver’s can be found on its outer reaches.

Inside it’s a mix of rustic wood-fired warmth and exposed brick, with urbane slate-grey tables and Shawcross-like artwork.

Greeting us on arrival, the front of house staff set the tone for the dining experience, by being at once polished and proficient while utterly charming and relaxed.

Chef Thomas Wightman, trained by Michael Dean, has worked with his team to craft a new lunch menu and here it is…

A quick look at the descriptions shows an admirable dedication to local produce, with the steak and pork sausages sourced from Carnbrooke, fish from Ewings and bread from Yellow Door.

It’s a deceptively broad menu, with six main options augmented to ten, with the option for a larger version of the starters.

I began with the chilli squid, which was the perfect antidote to the chill January winds – with its pleasant kick of spice and heat in the crispy coating.

When deep fried, squid often becomes either tough or rubbery. This was perfectly tender.

The squid can be ordered in a main-sized portion and I easily could have eaten a greater quantity, but wanted to do justice to the other courses.

 

Having started with fish, I had a hankering for a comforting, meaty main. A forkful, with a skewered slice of sausage, wrapped in sweet, slow-cooked onion with a smear of mustard mash and a splodge of rich gravy is the edible equivalent of a warm woolen blanket.

The gravy was the result of two days of maturation, with a combination of beef bones, homemade chicken stock, bottles of red wine and port reduced to a thick, dark, meaty essence.

That chef Thomas would go to such lengths for an

accompaniment to a supposed lesser cut shows how serious he is about his craft.

Pudding is generally my least favourite course and one I frequently skip in favour of cheese, but on the recommendation of our waiter, I ordered the lemon tart. While Oliver’s isn’t a themed restaurant, based on the Lionel Bart musical, its tart is an example of truly glorious food and when my empty plate was taken away, I did find myself thinking ‘please sir, can I have some more?’.

The list of flavours was as expansive as I was beginning to feel after such a hearty plateful of sausages and mash. The top of the tart had been bruléed, there was a tuile-type sugary biscuit perched on top, with a dollop of blueberry sorbet on the side. Raspberry coulis was matched with a chocolate crumb and sweet blackberries and blueberries made for a flavourful garnish.

This is not everyday food -it’s unabashedly rich and calorific and you’ll find no ‘meal deal’ offers here – but nor does it profess to be. Oliver’s new lunch menu is designed to elevate the midday meal, to luxuriate over and to enjoy. In this it certainly succeeds. If you’re looking for a departure from your typical lunch, then this is it.

With the dawning of a new year invariably comes  a whole raft of resolutions.

For me, these included more sleep, reading a book a week and hitting the gym every other day.

Two weeks in, I’ve yet to see my bed before midnight, Atlas Shrugged sits with a bookmark at page 47 and my gym bag remains rooted to the same spot it was on 31st December.

Perhaps I need to set more realistic goals.

One common refrain from us both, lately, has been that we need to make better use of our weekends, ideally to travel.

On these drizzly January days, a mini-break in the south of France or a Spanish costa seems pretty appealing, but with work commitments and a wedding to pay for, hopping on a plane for a few days of sun just isn’t an option.

Step forward, the ‘staycation’ – an irritating neologism but one with plenty of upsides – no expensive flights needed; less time spent travelling (maximising your relaxation time) and no currency concerns.

True, Northern Ireland may not enjoy the enviable heat of somewhere like Athens, but you know what? Our food’s better and the Acropolis is just Mussenden Temple for show-offs anyway.

We’re still pretty new to the idea of holidays at home, but at the tail-end of 2017, Tourism NI sent us on a trip to Strangford that opened up a whole world of travel options, right on our doorstep.

Our break began, as any good break should, with a delicious and relaxed dinner, at The Schoolhouse, near Comber.  Seated in what must be one of the handsomest dining rooms in the country, we were treated to an imaginative menu, that began with an array of snacks – deep fried whitebait, crescents of crispy cod skin topped with an oyster emulsion and crunchy beef tartar nibbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The starters (we chose the Helen’s Bay onion tart and Jerusalem artichoke soup) were subtle but perfectly seasoned, meticulously presented and washed down with a berry-filled sangiovese-merlot (a wallet-friendly £20 a bottle).

For main course, I plumped for the Mourne Mountain lamb loin, while Lynsey opted for the flat-iron steak with mushroom pie. Both carried rather more robust flavours than our starters. Lynsey’s choice of beef was very tasty but my lamb was particularly memorable. The slightly ferrous flavour of the meat mingled perfectly with the rich, fruity jus and sweet, earthy beetroot. Excellent.

Pudding was again the product of considerable care and imagination. My ‘fruit cake’, far from the stodgy, boiled affair your grandmother might serve with stewed tea, was in fact a soft sponge oblong, draped in a tangy, getalatinised fruit blanket and served with an elderberry coulis, candied walnuts and blackcurrant sorbet. Lynsey’s primadonna of a pudding took an extra 20 minutes to prepare, but when it arrived, was suitably theatrical. The marmalade souffle, presented on a distressed wooden board, with Grand Marnier butter and icecream, had a beautifully burnished crust on top and a pleasingly seductive wobble, that showed it had been cooked to perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three course set menu was a very reasonable £25 (or a more parsimonious two course option could be had for £20).

If we’d had a meal of that quality in London, Paris or Berlin we’d be delighted. To do so as cheaply would be impossible. We will be back.

The restaurant was just a 10 minute drive from our resting place for the night – Peartree Hill B&B.

Perched in the middle of the County Down countryside, surrounded by a patchwork of fields, the tranquility belies the fact you’re only 20 minutes from Belfast.

It’s clear owners Avril and Ian take great pride in the environment they’ve cultivated – one that balances a homely feel with impeccable taste and outstanding amenities.

The attention to detail is exceptional – the peartree motif is continued from bedroom to breakfast table (Image courtesy of Peartree Hill)

There are panoramic views of the countryside from every room (Image courtesy of Peartree Hill)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peartree Hill is part of a new breed of B&B that combines the unparalleled hospitality of a Northern Ireland guesthouse, with the sort of quality of accommodation you’d find in a boutique hotel.

Dozens of little details – the sensation of luxurious, deep pile carpets underfoot; the binoculars to help you enjoy the view; the Hilden beer and Kilmegan apple juice in your fridge – all add up to something truly exceptional.

After a deep sleep in such peaceful surroundings, it’s a bit of a wrench to leave the Egyptian cotton cocoon, but once you do, you’re rewarded with a warm welcome from your ever-charming hosts and as high quality a cooked breakfast as I’ve seen anywhere,

Everything on the plate was local. Our eggs came from a neighbour’s hens, the soda bread was from Comber, a stone’s throw away and the bacon was sourced from Kennedy’s in Omagh.

From the mezzanine table, overlooking the glass-fronted hallway, you’re treated to an emerald vista of fields and hedgerows and depending on the season and how early you’re up, perhaps even a sunrise.

This enticing offering is available from £120 a night, based on two sharing. It’s frequently booked out and it’s not hard to see why. With its five star status and situation, within striking distance both of Belfast and stunning Strangford, it’s a compelling option.

There’s no shortage of activities in the immediate area and a number of new businesses have popped up to cater for growing visitor numbers. Strangford Sea Safari appeals to speed freaks and nature lovers, fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones can satisfy their swashbuckling urges on an interactive tour of Winterfell at the Old Castle Ward in Downpatrick while the newly re-opened Exploris Aquarium gives visitors the change to get close to a stunning array of marine life.

For history buffs like us, a trip to the ever-changing Mount Stewart is unmissable. Even the coastal drive that takes you there feels like a treat – a meandering road that hugs the shoreline of the shimmering lough. On a crisp, clear day there can’t be many prettier journeys on these isles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived as the National Trust had just finished work on several rooms which were newly opened the public.

This was just the latest phase in the gradual restoration of the estate, following a three year, £8m renovation project that ended in 2015. The continual work to return the house to its original state and events such as the Festival of Light ensure visitors to Mount Stewart will always enjoy a new experience.

Undoubtedly the ideal way to see the house is as part of a guided tour. There are so many artifacts and stories of historical visitors to explore and our knowledgeable host was able to direct us to them and enliven the story of Lady Edith Londonderry in a way a Google search or printed leaflet could not.

 Having built up quite an appetite, pottering around the beautiful house and gardens, our next stop had to involve food, and plenty of it.

Thankfully we were headed to the home of Tracey Jeffery, of NI Food Tours, whose famous macarons had landed her several Great Taste awards.

In the kitchen of her delightful home, a converted 18th Century barn, her friend Fred ‘the bread’ taught us the rudiments of hand-making traditional Irish soda and potato breads.

At a time when we’re witnessing an explosion of fine dining and global influences on food in Northern Ireland, it was a lovely reminder of our own, indigenous food culture.

This was further reinforced when we sat down to a lunch table, heaving with incredible local produce – everything from hand-rolled Abernethy butter to flavoured Burren Balsamics oil and spiced damson relish from Passion Preserved.

We have enjoyed food tours and foodie experiences on various holidays, but none had been nearly as unique or hands-on.

 

 

Our final activity took us to Castle Espie wetland centre, just a short drive back round the coast, towards Comber.

Among the more unusual presents my grandparents bought me as a child was membership to the Young Ornithologist Club, so in my younger years I was a frequent visitor.

Twenty years later, would it still hold the same appeal? In short, yes. You don’t have to be Bill Oddie to enjoy the impressive collection of native and exotic birds (Ireland’s largest). If you don’t mind the gentle nip of some voracious little beaks, you can even feed the birds by hand, though scarves, sleeves and shoe-laces are also susceptible to the odd nibble. For any humans who feel a bit peckish, there’s a new café in the visitor centre that serves excellent coffee, which doubles as a useful hand warmer for a chilly stroll around the sanctuary.

As Chris, who works in the centre told us, many of the migratory birds had flown thousands of miles to reach these shores.  Our tour of County Down, reminded us why tourists are also flocking to Northern Ireland for their holidays. In 2018, we’ll be among them. That’s one resolution I know I’ll keep.


We’re surrounded by sea and have one of the largest inland lakes in Europe, yet many of us in Northern Ireland, myself included, are a bit reticent when it comes to fish – unsure how best to cook it and what flavours to pair it with.

Imagine my relief, then, to discover, nestled at the back of my local Tesco, a fish counter with a vast array of seafood and knowledgeable (if a little camera-shy) staff ready with lots of handy cooking tips. 

The range had clearly been designed with all sorts of cooks in mind. There were, for example, beautiful Kilkeel scallops and meaty monkfish fillets if you were buying for a dinner party. Alongside those, were convenience options, perfect for the time-pushed diner.

As I fall into the latter category, I went with the helpful advice of Carole and bought a cod-cheek stir fry, marinated monkfish skewers, and a stout and molasses flavoured salmon fillet.

All three provided speedy, tasty meal solutions.

The salmon came in a handy paper bag, to cook in the oven, ‘en papillote’, with myriad cooking instructions printed on the back.

The monkfish skewers, which came coated in crumbs and herbs, take just a few minutes on the grill, while the cod-cheek stir fry came ready seasoned, with red onion, peppers and chili, meaning it just required a quick toss in a hot pan, with some additional veg (optional), a pouch of microwaveable rice and a good slosh of soy sauce.

My fishy trio were delicious, took minutes to prepare and came with a bit of expert guidance that made me feel a little more adventurous when it came to choosing what to cook.

Price-wise, it compares well with regular, supermarket fish. Enough cod-cheek stir fry mix for two people was less than three quid and the monkfish skewers (2) were a pretty reasonable £4.60. They would do nicely for two starter portions or a main for one greedy pescophile. The chunky salmon fillet came in at a competitive £2.70. 

If you live a bit more inland, chances are you won’t have a local fishmonger shop on your doorstep.  This is the next best thing and with the enormous choice and cleverly considered meal options, an excellent alternative.

If you’re looking for a quick, simple and flavourful way to get your fishy fix, give Keenan a go.

 

 

As the old idiom goes, you can judge a man by the company he keeps.

Anyone passing through the centre of Bangor would quickly deduce that the locals greatly enjoy the company of a good kebab, a traybake or perhaps a pizza. In short, Bangorians love to eat, a fact reflected in the dozens of bustling takeaways (over 40 at the last count), packed cafés and thriving restaurants.

While casual dining venues such as Little Wing, Papa Joes and Kook do a brisk trade, Bangor also has a tradition of higher-end, pioneering eateries, from Robbie Millar’s Michelin-starred Shanks, in the 90’s, to Stephen Jeffers’ eponymous venture in the 2000’s and more recently Joery Castel’s Boat House.

In that vein, Ken Sharp, owner of the Salty Dog and latterly the Boat House, is the latest torch-bearer for excellent, innovative food in the seaside town.

What really marks out both of his businesses, is an admirable dedication to using local produce.

The Salty Dog was the first north Down restaurant where I was served Hannan’s justly famous Glenarm shorthorn beef, sweet crab claws fresh from Bangor bay and citrusy golden ale from Comber’s Farmageddon brewery.

The last couple of years has seen a flourishing of the local craft ale market, something the Salty Dog has recognised and celebrated, including through their monthly beer club.

Another way in which they have showcased our local fermentations has been in the form of pairing menus – which is how we experienced their latest selection.

We arrived on a chilly November evening, retreating from the cool coastal breeze into the warmth and chatter of the sea-facing bar.

The rich wooden flooring, crackling fire and gentle soundtrack of soothing jazz make for a comforting environment on an inhospitable evening.

Awaiting us was a six-course tasting menu, each matched to a ‘flight’ of three local brews.

One of the joys of a tasting menu, such as this, is that it removes the guessing from the equation. What ale best accompanies which type of meat? Will the hoppy flavour dominate? Is it too bitter? Best left to the experts.

By way of an aperitif, we are served a glass of Uber Tuber, a crisp, potato-derived saison from a small but brilliant Newtownards brewer Bullhouse. The bottle, featuring a water-skiing potato, sets the tone for the evening – bold, fun and imaginative.

It’s early on a Thursday night, so the dining room isn’t packed as it is on a weekend, but there is a pleasant hum of activity.

Our engaging and knowledgeable young waiter Daniel talks us through our first flight – lagers and a pilsner paired with a mix of bar snacks – including the Tom Hiddleston/Sienna Millar-approved Ballinteer scotch egg, ‘beer sticks’ – delicious, salty, chewy strands of chorizo from award-winning charcuterer Ispini and crunchy, battered Ardglass cockle ‘popcorn’.

The particular standout, perfectly offsetting the oil, salt and heat of the beer sticks,  was the crisp, clean Mourne Mist which tasted refreshingly pure alongside such robust, rustic flavours.

Appetites well and truly whetted we were back onboard for flight number two – wheat and golden ales served with a delicious tranche of sweet pork belly, from Dromara’s Wilfie Bingham, whose free-roaming pigs produce the most succulent white meat I have tasted.  Alongside this, an earthy Gracehill black pudding bonbon and a generous dollop of tart apple gel. A curl of puffy pork crackling is balanced delicately on top, but there is nothing delicate about the flavours. Rich and richly satisfying, the accompanying golden ale provided enough bite to ensure it didn’t become cloying. Daniel, our ever-obliging waiter was again on hand to provide tasting notes and background to those behind the delicious local beers we were sampling. Bars and restaurants here are quickly cottoning-on to the increasing popularity of craft ales, particularly local ones and you will generally find one or two Northern Ireland brewers represented (usually in bottle form). This menu alone accounted for 16 of our finest beer producers. Here you will see Belfast’s own Yardsman on draught, sharing tap-space with Salty Dog’s own confection and a selected beer from the Open House Brewery (changed monthly). If you’re a local beer aficionado, the Salty Dog really is a must.

But I digress.

Salmon, caught on the west coast of Ireland and smoked at the restaurant arrives, beautifully tender and yielding to an eager fork. It’s perfectly cooked and garnished with lemon snow (the product of a reducing agent and some kind of alchemy), sweet pools of butternut squash, candied pumpkin seeds and stems of salty samphire. 

The snow was perhaps too sweet a garnish, tasting a little like sherbet, but everything else on the picture-perfect plate was brilliantly balanced. Daniel raves about the citras that join the smoky, sweet salmon and his enthusiasm is well-placed. The Small Axe, from the same Bullhouse Brewery that created Uber Tuber, was simply superb – the best beer I’ve tried all year and the literally-named Citra from Ards Brewing Company wasn’t far behind.

Already beginning to feel full, along came the main event – a perfectly pink Carnbrooke salt-aged cote de boeuf with a support act of pomme anna (a sort of savoury, potato mille-feuille), crispy pickled shallot rings and a creamy madeira-enriched sauce.

When I tell you that our waiter had to enlist an additional table to accommodate the generous slab of beef, it may sound as if the amount of food was excessive, but this sort of bacchanalian meal is no time for moderation and despite the quantity, every delicious mouthful was savoured and finished.

Where a full-bodied red wine may be the usual match for a beef dish, here it was twinned with a selection of red ales. We both thoroughly enjoyed the Massey by Hillstown, though did not agree over Heaney’s Irish red. That what was on the plate was pure poetry, was not be disputed.

The beer-infused mini cones that followed were as inventive a palate cleanser as I’ve seen and a welcome space to allow us to recuperate our appetites ahead of a highly-anticipated pudding course. Made with Farmageddon’s golden ale and the Salty Dog’s own, they were pleasingly light, lemony and refreshing.

As an unrepentant chocaholic, the Nearynogs chocolate fondant was the course Lynsey had immediately identified upon reading the menu. I tend towards the savoury, so the dark, bitter edge to the salted porter treacle gel and and burnt toffee taste of the porter ripple icecream meant there was something for both of us.

The porters lined up beside our plates were sipped a little slower than the previous pairings, both due to their comparative heaviness and the amount of food consumed. This easing of the pace allowed for quiet cogitation and discussion of the meal.

We were both struck by three main things – the standard of both ales and food, the price (£45 a head went a long way) and the sense of event dining. The amazing local ingredients, highly trained, passionate staff and attention to detail made the evening feel like a proper celebration of local food.

Before we left, once more into the chilly November evening, we still had the cheese course to look forward to. 

The wedges of Bannagher Bold, a nutty, ale-washed cheese, may look a little miserly, but trust me, as with the rest of the menu, the amount was very well judged.  Along with the grapes, batons of celery and oatcakes, it was just the right amount to nibble on, while we made our homeward flight with a second batch of IPAs. This included the No.26 from Northbound, the same ale used to douse the cheese we were enjoying. A suitably deft finish to a brilliantly-executed meal.

Recently, interested parties from within and without have expressed a desire to once again make Bangor a destination town. English designer Wayne Hemingway, Bill Wolsey, entrepreneur and one of Bangor’s most successful sons and Alison Gordon, manager of the Open House festival have described its potential to be the Brighton of the north. If it is to be judged a gastronomic destination, The Salty Dog is the kind of company Bangor really must keep.

 

 

 

We’re over half way through my blind dates with #DTHDating and what a few weeks it has been! In case you’ve missed it, dates one and two have taken us to Malmaison and Town Square in Belfast and both have been fabulous, I have to say though, I fell in love on date number 3…

Unfortunately, it wasn’t with my blind date but the amazing Fratelli on Great Victoria Street, Belfast.

Having been to Fratelli before and never been disappointed, I was looking forward to going for my third blind date.

I was meeting my date, Dave straight after work so I have to say, I was a little flustered when I arrived and the lashing rain certainly didn’t help.

I was met by maître d’, Rebecca who very kindly welcomed me to the restaurant and straight away, I felt at ease and almost forgot that my hair was a fuzzy mess (I couldn’t even use the excuse that it was Halloween?!). Rebecca took me upstairs to the recently launched La Taverna restaurant. She showed me around and explained that she had set up the outside covered veranda complete with blankets, cushions and FIRE if we wanted to sit there -anyone who knows me knows I love my comforts so I didn’t have to think twice!

A few minutes later, my date Dave arrived. As per all my blind dates I introduced myself and explained it was lovely to meet him, until he told me that it was nice to meet me again! It took me a minute to realise where we had actually met before until it clicked that we had met earlier this summer at an event! It also occurred to me that I had unintentionally insulted Dave during our initial meeting… I was hoping he didn’t remember that part?!

Rebecca came to take our drinks order and gave us some breadsticks and dip. It was a lovely touch. We opted for cocktails and were spoilt for choice at the huge variety of drinks available on the menu at La Taverna. I went for the Mojito Alla Fragola Con Prosecco suggested by Rebecca and Dave went for the Mojito Con Presca Bianca. 

I have to say, I felt very at ease with Dave – maybe it was because we had met before, I’m not sure but the conversation was flowing. He also made me chuckle when one of his first comments were “I’ve read your blog… I think Dean is my competition!” haha. 10/10 for wittiness Dave! J

The location of La Taverna definitely added to the experience – overlooking Great Victoria Street during rush hour in the lashing rain with a cocktail in hand – It was perfect!

Once we finished our cocktail, we made our way into the restaurant where we reviewed the extensive menu. Our waiter, Paul brought us another drink and we did struggle when deciding what to eat but eventually I decided on the Piccante Milano pizza and Dave chose the chicken and chorizo risotto.

Once again, Rebecca came over to make sure we were enjoying our evening. The service throughout the whole evening was outstanding and we both felt very well looked after.

At this stage, I think Dave and I knew there wasn’t an attraction between us but it felt like I was having dinner with one of my friends, which is definitely a good sign.

My favourite topics of conversation throughout the evening were hangover cures – Dave’s suggestion of eggs the day after drinking is one I’ll definitely consider next time I’m feeling slightly fragile and we also chatted about our worst dating experiences. There were some very funny stories and I really enjoyed Dave’s company.

Our food arrived relatively quickly and I was very excited to tuck in. My pizza looked amazing, and it did not disappoint. The flavours tickled my taste buds – the best pizza I’d had in ages. Even thinking about it now makes me want to jump in my car to go back! Dave also really enjoyed his risotto although the portion sizes were so big, we unfortunately couldn’t finish our mains.

In saying that, once the dessert menu appeared we obviously had a look and thought it would be a shame not to sample the offerings. Dave went for the Cioccolato Mousse e Biscotti Coccanti Al Cioccolato and whilst I wasn’t going to go for a dessert, Rebecca suggested the cheese board so I went for that.

The portion sizes of the desserts are small so aren’t ideal for sharing but hey, it’s an excuse to get two desserts! The chocolate mousse with biscotto looked delicious when it arrived and the cheeseboard was also gorgeous.  

There really were no complaints from myself or Dave about any part of the evening. We were treated so well by everyone who worked at Fratelli and it’s definitely went to the top of my recommendations list for places to eat in Belfast.

It certainly won’t be as long again before I return, in fact – their next ‘Ladies Night Goes to the Movies’ is showing one of my favourites, Sleepless in Seattle on 5th December. The offer includes a main course, glass of wine, mini dessert and private screening of the movie for only £25 per person! I’ve already suggested it to my girlfriends so hopefully it’s a goer!

 

 

Rate the date

Location – 4.5*

Overall, I had a really enjoyable evening with Dave that was made even better with the fantastic setting of La Taverna. I cannot rate Fratelli highly enough for a date. From the service, the location, the quality of food and the atmosphere, it was an all round excellent experience. Whilst our main courses and drinks were complimentary courtesy of Fratelli, it really is great value for money.  Dave very kindly sorted out the remainder of our bill. It’s very reassuring to meet a nice, genuine and hardworking guy who treats a lady well.

So…. now it’s onto our final #DTHDating blind date! Will it be a case of leaving the best to last? Let’s wait and see!

My latest challenge from Down the Hatch was to create something that embodied Autumn, something warm and cosy that can be shared with friends.

Autumn is definitely up there as one of my favourite seasons; the rich colours and cosy clothes, crisp weather and full flavours. And…pumpkins.  I love the colour and versatility of pumpkins (you’ll be able to tell from the photos!)

For this blog I decided to recreate BBC Good Food’s pumpkin fondue.  

 This is absolutely a recipe you must try. It is simple and fun to make, it just requires a little muscle when scooping out the pumpkin flesh! It is a melted, gooey deliciousness and the perfect starter, appetizer or supper throughout Autumn. 

I made this pumpkin fondue around a year ago, when Andrew came across it on BBC Good Food. He had planned to host a Murder on the Menu evening with a few friends, he was in charge of the mysterious murder and I had the control of the menu.  

We started with the pumpkin fondue, dipping breads and layering up on chutneys and cured meats.

I topped the cheese fondue with a few pumpkin seeds and set everything up on a wooden tray so all our guests could dive in. 

We had a great evening; Andrew even brought a ‘dead body’ (Egyptian mummy wrapped in bin liners) from school. We dressed up in character, kept to the script and really enjoyed working out who had committed the crime.  

 I can definitely recommend the murder mystery evening and pumpkin fondue to start. It really has the gourmet wow factor when you present it to friends or family. 

Ingredients

1 whole pumpkin  

100g emmental, grated 

100g Gruyere, grated 

100g mature cheddar, grated  

1 tbsp cornflour  

100g crème fraiche  

2 tbsp white wine  

1 shallot finely chopped  

1 garlic clove, crushed  

Method  

1. Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4.  

2. Start to prepare your pumpkin as you would for carving: cut off a  ‘lid’ and scoop out all the seeds and flesh.  

3. Put the lid back on and sit the whole pumpkin on a sturdy baking  tray.

4. Bake for 1 hour.   

5. Mix the grated cheeses with the cornflour until completely coated and no excess flour remains.  

6. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and discard the lid  

7. Increase the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6.  

8. Layer up the cheese, crème fraîche, white wine, shallot and garlic inside the pumpkin

 

(Blog by The Dolly Bird – Twitter: @TheDollyBirdNI)

This week my second blind date was much s’more fun than I ever anticipated!

My friends @Down the Hatch NI choose Town Square Café on Botanic Avenue in Belfast as the next venue in the series.

I remember Lynsey once telling me that her first date with Robert was at Café Smart and that going to a coffee shop meant the date from the outset seemed more chilled than going for dinner, so I had high hopes for my second blind date with Dean.  

I’m not sure why but I felt a little more nervous than usual this week. I think it was because I was conscious of being seated in very close proximity to the other diners compared to my previous week’s date, where we had complete privacy.

A few minutes later, I spotted a very handsome guy waiting to be seated and my heart began to flutter – all I could think was ‘Laura keep cool!’

It was funny, almost straightaway I forgot where we were as the conversation flowed so easily – we were talking like this was our fifth date as opposed to our first! 

 My date Dean was very handsome, to the point that I think if we met in different circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to talk to him (this whole #DTHDating series definitely has its upsides!)

Down the Hatch had kindly prepaid for us to sample the s’more share board, which is very reasonably priced at £7, as well as two gins (complements of Town Square). Not being gin drinkers, we were unsure of what to get but our waitress suggested a few different varieties, so we both decided on the Eden Mill Love. 

Our waitress brought out the S’mores board and it looked fab! Three marshmallows each, with chocolate biscuits and a table burner for us to toast the mallows on… It was so much fun, although we didn’t anticipate how messy and gooey the toasted marshmallows would be (not the best look for a first date but it certainly gave us something to laugh about).  

 After our s’mores our gins were served and they looked amazing –I felt sophisticated regardless of whether or not I actually liked the taste of gin (I did!), I would have happily sat and held the glass all night as it was so pretty!

Our gin came with a Merchants Heart mixer, which was also tasty. Our only criticism of the gin was the flowers in the drink. As beautiful as they were to look at, on a few occasions we both had flowers stuck to our mouths! Luckily, at this stage we had chatted and laughed enough that it became a joke each time and the laughter continued. 

 By this stage in the night there was only the two of us in Town Square.

We had chatted about everything and didn’t notice the time going in. Soon enough we were ready for our second drink in no time – I opted for the same again but  Dean tried the Jawbox Gin with Ginger Ale which he enjoyed – though a bit of honeycomb might have made it as decedent as our first gin.

By the time we finished our second drink, Town Square was starting to quieten down, but we weren’t ready for home yet so we decided to move on for a couple more drinks to Lavery’s Bar. 

Overall, I had a really great evening and came home buzzing! I really enjoyed Dean’s company as he was so engaging and interesting (I can hear Lynsey now going OOOOooooOOOO!!!).

If it hadn’t of been for having to get our transport home, we probably would have sat until the wee hours of the morning. Is there the potential for a second date?  Well, I think the fact that I didn’t want to go home tells a tale or two so we’ll see…… Good work Down the Hatch!  

 Rate the date 

Location – 4* – The final bill in Town Square for our two drinks was a reasonable at £13.90. Apart from my initial reservations about the location where we were seated, I ended up really liking Town Square. It is a casual setting and the food looked amazing. I definitely think I would go back for lunch or dinner (or another date!) but I wouldn’t choose it as a location for a first date due to its lack of privacy but the s’more board was certainly fun talking point to ease use into the date! 

 

The brasserie at Malmaison, Belfast (Photo: Malmaison)

(Blog by The Dolly Bird – Twitter: @TheDollyBirdNI)

So, this week I had my first blind date as part of #DTHDating organised by my good friends Lynsey and Robert at @DowntheHatchNI.

Over the course of four weeks, I’m going on four blind dates to four different locations throughout Belfast to check out how they rate for dates.

The first place Down the Hatch suggested was Malmaison on Victoria Street, Belfast.

Having heard lots of great reports, I was excited to visit.

I’ve been on dates before but never a blind date. I must admit, I was relatively cool in the run up to the date until I arrived outside the gorgeous Malmaison. All of a sudden I felt a little flutter of nerves – thankfully they didn’t stay too long!

My first impressions of Malmaison were WOW! The building is incredible, the décor and the ambience are warm, cosy and friendly! I have to admit, I felt slightly out of place as it is so elegant, but the excitement of meeting my date took over.

After making my way inside, I spotted an elderly gentleman sitting on his own and thought Down the Hatch were having a laugh at my expense, but after finding the Brasserie and speaking with Aisling, a very friendly waitress, she showed me to my date.

Then I met Andrew…

Surprisingly, I was very impressed! He was tall, dark(ish) and handsome. I thought Down the Hatch had done well for my first blind date!

The Brasserie is amazing! With a wooden theme throughout, as well as Titanic memorabilia, cute vintage-inspired photo frames and quirky ornamental buckets, the setting was very welcoming.

The room was bright and made me feel very comfortable but I was most impressed by where we were sitting.

We had been allocated a booth facing a gorgeous wall mounted fire, which again added to the cosiness of our date. The booth offered us privacy and we may as well have been the only two people in the whole restaurant. The perfect location for a first (blind) date and in my opinion, the best seats in the house. 

Andrew was a very easy person to talk to. We chatted about all things from travel, working, family and even our worst foodie experiences – Andrew’s was shark whilst mine was caterpillar?!

Thankfully the menu in Malmaison helped banish those experiences from our minds. We ordered from the very reasonably priced Prix Fixe menu, which offers two courses for £19.95 and three courses for £24.95.

Both Andrew and I opted for the mushroom and black truffle macaroni.

Our meal arrived and looked very appetising!

Improbable though it may sound, I’ve eaten truffle before, but never actually had macaroni.

My first experience was in no way a let-down! The sauce, ripe with flavour was smooth and paired with the mushroom in the dish, tasted amazing!

We both were very impressed with our main course, although the portion size was so large, I unfortunately couldn’t finish mine. 

The staff were really helpful throughout the evening – our waitress Aisling and waiter Paul made sure we had enough drinks at all times.

I chose the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which was crisp and refreshing, whilst Andrew went for a Guinness. Manager Lydia also made sure our evening was going smoothly – we were really well looked after.

After treating ourselves to dessert (I chose the apple pie crumble and Andrew had the steamed chocolate pudding – thumbs up for both!), we continued our conversation using some prompt questions from Down the Hatch!

Thankfully, we didn’t need them as the conversation was flowing as well as the wine, but who can pass up asking if you were a chocolate bar, what would you be?! A more difficult question to answer than you’d think! Andrew’s choice was a rum-flavoured chocolate from Lidl, where I struggled between Kitkat Chunky and Mint Aero!

As the time ticked on, it was time for us both to leave our first date.

Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a spark and I don’t think Andrew and I will be going on a second date, but I thoroughly enjoyed my evening with him, which was made even more special by the amazing surroundings of Malmaison.

I would certainly recommend it as a location for a date and suggest if you’re looking for some private time, request the booth at the back of The Brasserie facing the fire – it really is a majestic setting!

Rate the Date (1-5*)

Location 4* – Malmaison was the perfect setting for a first date. Whilst our meal and drinks was complimentary, if you’re paying it could end up quite expensive but the food and drinks do not disappoint and are worth the money in my opinion.

Roll on next week’s #DTHDating!

DBx