Fontana restaurant used to be la table de preference of the Holywood jet-set until everything in the well-heeled dormitory town turned to bitterness, accusations, recriminations and eventual poverty and austerity following the credit crunch.
In Fontana, an endless parade of beautiful, intelligent but ultimately bored men and women had lunched with each other while their properties generated millions, enough to keep the Bentley insured and the children at Rockport.
Yet Fontana maintained the quality of food and service and kept the prices reasonable throughout this period. The restaurant could easily have fallen into a strict door policy routine of not letting riff-raff in, yet people as humble as lawyers, doctors, opticians, advertisers and PR consultants could still walk in unannounced and be warmly greeted and tabled with grace and hospitality.
A return last week for the first time since the Swarovski period came crashing to an end showed that none of this democratic elegance had suffered. The front of house was as impeccable and charmingly competent as ever and the relaxed mood one which was created by genuine hospitality.
What’s most pleasant about getting to the top of the stairs and entering Fontana’s first-floor position overlooking the High Street is the kitchen, which is under permanent inspection by all who come in. You have to walk past its open-plan activity, witness the production and creativity and nod to those curious enough to look up to see for whom they’re cooking.
Today, due to her unavailability through work pressures, demands on her diary and her immense popularity, the advisor has appointed Betty Templeton as her representative on earth. Betty knows about food (she worked closely with Michael Deane for four years in the historic Glenmachan Hotel), is an accomplished cook and knows the lay of the land around here. Yet she’s never been to Fontana.
We nod and wave royally as we walk past the kitchen and are offered a table outside on the little terrace, bathed in sunshine. It’s a wonderfully private place with potted plants and a couple of linen-covered tables. In the sunshine, it’s bright and beguiling. It’s possibly the worst place to have a weekday lunch as all thoughts of work in the afternoon become scrambled and objectionable.
Betty and I have a look at the lunch specials menu, which is clever and appropriate. There are four starters, three mains and three desserts to choose from, including a warm feta, wild mushroom and artichoke tart with cherry tomatoes, courgette and Millview farm salad leaves; a Caesar salad with chargrilled chicken breast, black olive and parmesan; a crispy duck salad with fresh mango, rocket and red chillies; or the intriguing Fontana lunch plate with pork terrine, Ardrahan cheese, red onion compote, sliced apple and wheaten bread. The starters are between five and seven pounds, which seems excellent value as most of them would constitute a lunch, especially the last one (£6.50).
But we then look at the a la carte and see reams of things we’d both like even more. Betty makes the first move and orders the drink — a glass of rosé. We both have this and choose the Portavogie prawn risotto with white wine, rosemary and red chilli for her and, for myself, the lobster ravioli with fresh coriander, ricotta cheese, lobster cream with peas, tomato and red peppers.
The risotto is a triumph as good as the one made by twin-starred Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin. It’s rich, creamy, burgeoning with prawns, and presented in the most appetising colours of pink and cream with dots of red chilli. We both agree it’s a tremendous dish, perfectly executed with soft but still textured rice.
Sadly, the ravioli and its cream tasted flavourless. But soon, the pan-roasted monkfish with miso and sesame brocolli, sweet potato mash and fricassee of mushrooms steps in to provide some fun. It’s a generous dish with lovely great boulders of white meat surrounded by a composition of colours and textures. The dark miso and sesame jus give plenty of salty clout to the fish.
Betty’s spring lamb with soft polenta, spring vegetables and salmoriglio (a lemony condiment made of lemon juice, olive oil, minced garlic, chopped oregano and parsley, salt and pepper) was as pretty as Chelsea Flower Show — all little meat cuts, leaves, veg and lemony sauce.
A few sorbets (including a very good dark chocolate one) for Betty and an unexpectedly agricultural and masculine custard tart with berries rounded off our lunch in the sun. Fontana is as good as it ever was, but it has its weak spots.
That ravioli was no good. But if you can be there during the rare convergence of sunshine, outdoor seating availability and appetite, it will make for a memorable life experience.
Lobster ravioli £7.50
Sparkling water x 2 £7.90
Glass rosé x 3 £12.75
Coffee x 2 £3.90
61a High Street, Holywood, Co Down BT18 9AE
Tel: 028 9080 9908