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.