Stephen Jeffers is either a brave man or nuts. Because even with the passing of Thyme, the restaurant out at Blackwood Golf Centre in Clandeboye will forever be Shanks, the Michelin-starred altar at which many of us genuflected and worshipped chef patron Robbie Millar, God rest him.
But Jeffers is no slouch himself, and if anyone can take the place and its immense legacy on, it’s him.
For Jeffers, Blackwood is almost like a return home. He started out cooking for the local aristocrat Lady Dufferin and never really distanced himself even after leaving her service. A long spell in Donaghadee’s Grace Neill’s placed him firmly among the rising young chefs who, in the Nineties and Noughties, were transforming our eating habits. Then came a spell at the Boat House in Bangor, but it’s the Jeffers by the Marina that has been a mainstay in the town.
So what next for this restless and ambitious chef? Shanks, of course! Recently opened as Jeffers at Blackwood, the restaurant looks and feels almost exactly the same as when Robbie and his partner Shirley ran it. Downstairs is a clubby, low-ceilinged restaurant with decent oil paintings hung on a dark mushroom-coloured wall. Red leather banquettes and simple, elegant furniture provide comfort and some informality.
The front-of-house staff are attentive but in this, the first week of opening, they are also mildly overwhelmed and unsure as to whether or not they are aiming for high-end fine dining, hand-behind-the-back service or homey, blokey, friendliness. Some try to be both and that doesn’t work. Unless you’re continental.
Wine, for instance, is kept a long walk away from the table in a terribly formal and posh nod to finer convention, yet it takes a little too long to get anybody’s attention when the glasses need filling. Best leave the bottle on the table and let everyone relax a bit.
The menu is probably the most appetising one we’ve seen outside of Cayenne and it takes an age for the five of us to make up our minds. Everything is desirable. Among the starters there is organic smoked ‘Jeffers cured’ Glenarm salmon with horseradish set Clandeboye yoghurt, carpaccio of Irish beef with soused organic vegetables, Mourne oysters with pickled carrot and fennel, pickled pear and walnut salad with Ardsallagh goat’s cheese, Copeland crab with toasted fruit and nut bread.
I am that greedy, I order two starters — a half dozen oysters, for sharing with the advisor, naturally, and the crab.
The crab starter comes in a tall, conical cocktail glass with symmetrically-arranged mimosa on top creating a kind of yin-yang pattern of crumbled egg white and egg yolk. Breaking through this delicate top, the crab meat and salad beneath are lush and plentiful. It’s excellent and if it hadn’t been sitting out for quite so long in the chill cabinet it might have been even tastier.
Because the restaurant is so young, some teething problems have to be allowed. While the oysters in tempura are excellent with their little julienne and spicy tomato and chilli sauce, and while the scallops in curry sauce are almost a tribute to Millar himself, not everything is fabulous. A suckling pig mixed grill that includes chipolata, a chop and a cheek, are all good quality but completely destroyed by a burnt gravy or sauce that is bitter and sweet and has to be scraped off. Did anyone taste it before it left the kitchen? On the other hand, a ‘baby beef’ dish is actually a very juicy and tasty big veal chop, which is as good as any of us has had anywhere. I’d go back just for a mouthful of that veal.
A good omelette Arnold Bennett is cheesy, buttery and salty. It is something you might have for breakfast but I’m glad to see it. In this case the omelette is a study in airy lightness, a barely-there envelope in which to slip the heavy sauce and the two densities marry very amicably.
The place is filling up on this Saturday night and even the upstairs diner, which is a little less formal but enjoys the same menu, is buzzing. The service struggles on and everything is forgiven when it’s conducted with smiles and an acknowledgement of the problems.
But the occasional gaps are glaring. Dessert menus arrive and the family elder who enjoys a little dessert wine asks for the wine list. By the time the desserts of brownie (top marks), crème brûlée (a bit runny but rich and eggy) and ice cream (three scoops to heaven) have come and gone the server asks about the choice of wine. Still, it was hard to feel anything other than benign.
Stephen Jeffers will make this work. It might take a while to settle down and make its mind up as to whether to pitch itself towards top end or not.
Once that’s sorted (I hope he sticks with the less formal bistro approach, which is his forte and which the service is more likely to be comfortable with), it’ll be another bright jewel in north Down’s culinary crown.
Crab x 3 £26.85
Veal x 2 £43
Cauliflower mornay £3.95
New potatoes £3.95
Crème brûlée £5.25
Ice cream £5.25
Child’s chicken £7.50
Sparkling water £2.50
Diet Coke x 2 £5