If recent trends in restaurant design and experience are anything to go by, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re heading into the abysss of anarchy.
Many older diners think the end of the world is nigh and that the good old days of going to a restaurant, being handed a menu, making your choice of starter, main and dessert and being served by charming and knowledgeable staff are well and truly over.
These days, the diner faces a growing choice of funky, punky places with mismatched furniture and cutlery, bed-head servers and bistros all merging as a movement to generally dismantle the old rules of formality, politeness and tidiness. The trend, say people like my mum, threatens to swamp the very best traditions of eating out. So, where do you go if you need a bit of chintz? Step forward, Greyabbey.
Here, in the heart of a tiny Ulster village that will forever be Midsomer, is No. 14, a restaurant and antiques shop in the true tradition of biscuit tin perfection. It is here that the lover of rustic convention, of artfully arranged dried flowers in pottery jugs and vases, of carefully designed surroundings echoing an ideal rural existence (as defined by Country Life magazine) with the correct shades of woodland sage and matt cream wood panelling and lots of higgledy piggledy little staircases, low windows and beams in the ceiling, will at last find sanctuary.
No. 14 is like that village in Asterix’s Gaul — cosy, charming and idyllic, but also defiant as the last bastion of Gallic tradition and culture defending itself from a constant threat of invasion by the Roman military that occupies the rest of the continent.
Oh, it’s easy to take pops at those places that attract the more mature diner, but it’s a measure of just how far we’ve come in the development of 21st century bistros and restaurants that a return to these values seems timely.
The place is run by the impeccably dressed and coiffed Eoin Lane. A busy figure in gold-rimmed glasses, shirt, tie and waistcoat, Lane is a man dedicated to quality and good taste. His style is what Parisians refer to as ‘bon chic, bon genre’ — a kind of classic evocation of understated mid-20th century elegance, the kind approved of in the posh 16th Arrondissement.
His attention to detail is just as pronounced in the quality of the food, its provenance and preparation, which Lane and his staff of one distribute happily to the tables of two and four upstairs and downstairs.
Chef Ron Nicholl produces exactly the kind of lunch to match the ambience (dinners are served on Saturday nights only and need to be booked well in advance, such is the reputation they’ve built). There are light lunches of garlic farmhouse crusty bread with Cheddar melt, coarse pheasant and Girolles pate with hot toast and No. 14’s own chutney and Portavogie prawns sautéed in garlic butter on the house-baked toasted wheaten. Hot and cold salads include open sandwiches of Coronation chicken and prawn and Marie Rose, hot chicken Caesar salad and grilled goat’s cheese salad and sunblushed tomato and basil pesto.
And then there are main course lunches of the day with offers such as chowder and chicken paillard.
The chowder is a standard at No. 14. Ron Nicholl says he makes it fresh each order. The stock is there and he adds the smoked haddock, salmon, prawns and mussels only when ordered, which makes it one of the lightest, tastiest chowders around. Packed with sweet (prawn) and salty (smoked haddock) flavours, the enhancement brought about by the intensity of the fresh flat leaf parsley makes the chowder a real classic, a destination dish, something worth travelling for.
The accompanying bread is a good wheaten with a blend of consistency, crumbliness and wheaty whiffiness. It’s a bit of a shame that the butter comes in those tiny pre-packed rectangles — this restaurant would be just the right place for a dollop of golden Abernethy butter in a pretty porcelain dish.
The chicken paillard is a simple breast of chicken butter-flied and roasted in a pan. It’s an old name for escalope. The accompanying new potatoes in garlic butter are equally wholesome and the addition of bare rocket leaves underlines the healthiness of it all. I would have preferred a proper salad with dressing — leaves hold little interest unless there’s some added oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, etc.
A very good rhubarb tart with fresh whipped cream is reassuringly old fashioned and chunky (and served warm). It adds expense to the dear enough lunch, which will sting me for £22. But I was being greedy. A lighter but no less entertaining lunch could easily have been secured for well under a tenner in No. 14.
The Saturday night dinners should be worth the trip — particularly as it’s bring your own booze and there’s no corkage.
Chicken paillard £9.95
Sparkling water £1.95
12-14 Main Street, Greyabbey BT22 2NE
Tel: 028 4278 8988