The age of austerity brings with it a desire for comfort, reassurance and stability.
It also prompts nostalgia and fond memories of the good old days. In our house we have, for instance, forsaken our normal Monday night tea of sautéed pufflings, scrambled gull eggs with lichen-smoked kobi cheese and nitro-frozen, chilli flavoured haddock ice cream. This has been replaced with vegetable soup.
The soup is made from the 99p broth packs you get in supermarkets which contain one carrot, a turnip, an onion and a leek.
Many of us have had to tighten the belt and temper our adventurous streak in the face of rising costs of food. We are learning to make do.
Restaurants are doing the same and introducing new, cheaper cuts of meat (chump, chuck, de-rumped steaks). Types of fish I wouldn’t even have given the cat ten years ago (gurnard) are now popping up on menus in reputable restaurants and cheap but wholesome produce like curly kale is everywhere.
The fact is that, in the hands of a good chef, these can actually be as appetising, exciting and satisfying as top of the range stuff.
Coast in Holywood doesn’t exactly scrimp on the raw materials, nor does it put out small portions, but it does do comfort, reassurance and stability.
Coast, a welcoming bistro on the high street pumps out hospitality by the shovel. It’s a warm and intimate restaurant which comes up trumps on most fronts: there are cocktails, friendly, charming service and the food is grand. Some of the dishes are memorable.
Take the advisor’s mussels in hot chilli liquer. This was the best and most resounding answer to France’s famed mouclade, a dish of mussels served with a curry sauce which dates back to the early days of the 16th century spice trade coming through La Rochelle’s busy harbour.
Coast’s answer to this — fresh, fat Strangford mussels, vastly superior to the French ones I’ve had along the Charente Maritime coast, in a chilli and white wine liquer — was head and shoulders above anything we have experienced here or abroad. It’s worth making the trip to Coast for this alone.
The fiery chilli, kept in check by the white wine and a drop of cream, warmed the back of the throat and didn’t overwhelm the delicate mussels. I could have eaten this all night and nearly got stabbed with a fork by the advisor for taking too many spoonfuls.
If the rest of the offer wasn’t quite so spectacular, that’s not to say it wasn’t good because the dishes we had — ribs, buffalo wings, prawn cocktail, lamb shank, and Cajun-style salmon — were all life-giving and hearty. And that’s really the mood of Coast — a bit neighbourhood eatery, a bit destination bistro — but either way, it’s run with a sense of passion and dedication.
This commitment shines through in the sheer size of the dishes. The advisor, whose appetite can match that of ten oil drillers, struggled with the Cajun salmon and its two poached eggs and a rocket salad the size of a small hillock. The lamb shank on the bed of champ was equally formidable and even if the meat did not fall from the bone, the dark gravy soaked into the creamy mash to provide the comfort of a blanket and the reassuringly recognisable savoury flavours of a good Sunday roast.
It wasn’t unlike the ribs we’d had earlier. Another 45 minutes at a low heat to let the meat dry a little and loosen from the bone would have brought them up closer to the mark.
But the feature which cuts the difference in Coast is the service. There is a genuine sense of passion and consideration among the floor staff.
The younger ones are smiley and want to help, the more experienced have a calm, almost mumsy approach.
Coast is the kind of place which should be reliable in case of unexpected family visits. Those cousins from Canada would be happy to be taken to a place like this because it offers proper Ulster warmth, accepts that people want volume, but still tries hard on the quality.
The weaker spot was my banoffee slice which looked too glossy and shiny and had the wrong balance of crumbly base to thick toffee crème. But that wouldn’t put me off a return visit.
The fact that it does takeaways and opens at 10 in the morning is good news for agoraphobics and brunch lovers.
Sticky ribs £5
Lamb shank £15
Toffee pud £4.50
Bottle wine £16
30 High Street, Holywood Co. Down
Tel: 028 90423950.