The people at Oregano just outside Ballyclare have been serving good food for the last few years without making any fuss. Dermot and Catherine Reagan know their onions and the country restaurant has a strong local reputation for excellent cooking.
The bleak old house is, however, charmless and a bit depressing and if it weren't for the quality of the food and service it would need a Olympics-standard opening ceremony to lift it. But the food's why we're here and it will be all the more exciting tonight because a special seafood menu has been created as a one-off experiment. The idea is that most popular dishes on the proto-menu will then be incorporated into the broader Oregano dinner menu.
With me is Fishmonger John who has brushed the scales off his jeans for the night and whose job it is to keep me right on briny matters.
Shuddering past the reception and settling at a table — there's a good crowd in tonight — things move along quickly and elegantly. Servers are slick but have enough of that country wit and charm to take the dentist's surgery look off the place. A menu that has nothing but irresistible offers makes life impossible for a few minutes. There are four starters, including spiced crab risotto with avocado ice cream, paupiette of sole with serrano ham, bruschetta of langoustines and Kilkeel prawns and steamed Dundrum mussels with white wine and fennel cream — so appealing I could have them all. But after some minutes, the Sancerre starts loosening the brain-to-mouth co-ordination and choices are made.
Who could go past the challenge of avocado ice cream? The risotto arrives in a shallow bowl, an appetising mound of moist, marshy rice speckled with red chilli bits and lots of fibrous crab pieces with that light green globe of ice cream plonked on the top. It's wonderful and playful, spicy hot and icy cold, and the fragile crab flavours survive the temperature clashes and shine through.
Fishmonger John has gone with the bruschetta, which lies buried beneath a small pink-and-white hillock of peeled langoustines and prawns. The bruschetta has soaked up the tomato, lemon and butter and has lost any crusty crunch. This would have provided a welcome texture amidst all the softness, but that's ok with John, who admires the way the langoustines have been cooked, neither over or under.
The main courses include (and I will list them all as they were equally irresistible) roast fillet of halibut with confit sweet potato, baby courgette and a black bean & truffle jus; seared fillet of seabass with Clonakilty black pudding pommes Anna, celeriac puree and baby carrots; seared Glenarm salmon with spiced puy lentils, seared foie gras and a fig & apple chutney; ‘surf & turf' of grilled local beef ribeye with grilled langoustine, chunky hand-cut chips, rocket & red onion salad and brown shrimp butter (£3 supplement); and finally, char-grilled fillet of saffron-marinated monkfish with chorizo pilaff, crispy pork belly and a sherry vinegar & caramelised garlic dressing.
John lands himself the monkfish while I hook a halibut. His is perfect bar the pork belly, which is an interference. The chargrilled monkfish is plentiful, firm and carries plenty of depth of flavour with that saffron. The tantalising scorched bits add another dimension to the tastes. You think it can't get any better and then those flavours reach new heights thanks to the vinegar and garlic dressing. But the pork belly ring is neither crisp nor tasty. It seems as if it has been lying around too long and would have worked well by introducing that other texture again, but no harm done.
My beautiful big fillet of halibut, roasted in butter and golden, is overcooked. The wet courgette and black bean and truffle jus do their best to inject more moisture into the thing but it's no good. This fillet has gone too far. Which is a shame.
But never mind, because the desserts are as enticing as everything else. An apple parfait with honeycomb and champagne mousse provides cold and zingy freshness. All three components are very well made. The champagne mousse has that hint of savouriness that stands up to the crackly sweet honey
comb and the parfait itself, which is light yet packed with distinctive apple acidity.
Oregano has proven its credentials as a seafood specialist. Apart from the halibut, everything was exceptional and memorable. We're not yet sure which dishes will make it to the main menu — I'd hope to see them all again.
Seafood night x 2 £55
Large sparkling water £3.50