It’s not in Bangor’s most stylish address, but the seaside town’s Café Essence is quietly serving up some stunning food
The hunt is over. For the last ten years food lovers have sought in vain for a Kinsale of the north. Kinsale, the County Cork port town, which is now famous for the excellence of its restaurants, has acquired a reputation as the culinary capital of Ireland. The pretty town boasts famous eateries including the Blue Haven, Max’s Wine Bar, Shrimps Seafood Bistro and many more.
But now, Kinsale’s pole position is being challenged by Bangor, County Down. In the last two years, regular readers will have noticed a repeat return to the seaside town by this reviewer. First it was Jeffers by the Marina, then it was Coyle’s Bistro followed by the Boat House, all within a one minute walk or so of each other. Now there’s a fourth centre of excellence in Café Essence.
Already well established, Café Essence has been going strong for a while at the very modest address above a hairdressers in the unfashionable Hamilton Road area of the town. The restaurant itself is accessed through the narrowest possible staircase and just when you thought you’d reached the summit, you realise there are more floors to this place than House of Fraser — or so it seems.
The tiny restaurant is actually a lesson in spatial order. With about two square feet to work with, a kitchen in half that space again, it’s a miracle anything of any significance happens here in the first place, let alone find ing somewhere big enough for a table for two. But miracles appear to be taking place here every night.
Judging by the local reputation of the place (I am grateful to the North Down Borough Council tourist office lady who insisted I go there) you aren’t going to find much better in terms of food and service anywhere else.
It’s true. The nice lady’s right. But before you start phoning to book a table you need to understand that Café Essence is for foodies who are blind to their surroundings and will happily trade their immediate environment for a decent slice of saucisson. What I’m saying is, it’s not Blenheim. But how beautifully Clare Dorian and her team have managed to transform this tiny and lugubrious address into something altogether cheery, cheeky and charming! There is seagrass on the skinny little stairs but it’s not quite Iona’s of Holywood. It is BYO but it still has a fridge for cokes, lemonade, sparkling and still mineral water — and the jug of iced water is on the table before you even have to ask for it.
Café Essence is correctly named. It embraces the very essence of a good restaurant that demands attentive but not interfering service and food as fresh as can be cooked after delivery (Dennis the Maitre d’ drives to Portavogie most mornings to collect the fish himself). And if you’re lucky enough to book the little private room at the top of the house — fit for ten people — you even have a docking station for your iPod to play all your fave tunes while servers run up and down those minute stairs so you can stuff your face.
The tiny proportions of the place are not reflected in the dishes, where a generous hand shows that top-drawer hospitality is about quality and quantity, not one or the other.
The best risotto I’ve had this year was in Café Essence. A mixed bean dish (a knee-jerk first reaction had me convinced this unlikely marriage — beans and arborio rice — would be terrible) was extraordinary. Deep rich flavours from the strips of crispy pancetta within and the creamy sauce, the butterbeans, white beans and other little bits and bobs combined to produce the most perfectly executed risotto, with accompanying wealth of tastes and savouriness.
The adviser’s blackened monkfish on skewers served on basmati rice was the second triumph. Her reaction was unusually and alarmingly effusive. I put it down to the BYO, which tends to lift the need for frugality, until I tasted her monkfish. Right enough, it was out of this world — fresh, meaty fish, blackened with a little balsamic vinegar and possibly some steak juices, gathered in generous quantities over a bed of rice in a warm creamy sauce. Honestly, you’d pay £30 for something like this anywhere else.
A cod and prawn mornay was as soothing and comforting as expected with a vast slab of perfectly poached cod fillet commanding centre stage with a surrounding chorus of Portavogie prawns filling out the rest of the dish under a thin veneer of lightly and quickly-grilled cheesy mornay sauce.
Hand-made chicken and fish goujons for the smaller children, flawless crusty pastry for the vegetable and goat’s cheese tartlets and fabulously golden hand-cut chips proved the quality wasn’t confined to a couple of the chef’s favourite dishes. This astonishing level of quality continued right through to dessert, where pavlova with fresh raspberries and cream, chocolate fudge cake and a dreamy pear and almond slice seemed, at first, insanely unconquerable after the quantities we had just been served. We persevered because quality like this doesn’t appear every day.
If this is Bangor’s best-kept secret, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. The youthfulness of Café Essence, the sense of dedication shown by the small team and the excellence in everything that seems to emerge from the minute kitchen should be enough to award this place the equivalent of the George Cross for gallantry.
2-course meal x 6 £126
Children’s meal x 2 £13.90
Additional supplements £26.50
Desserts x 2 £9
Soft drinks x 5 £6.50
Corkage/glass charge £4