Life’s full of eyebrow-raising moments. Pippa Middleton becoming the nation’s pin-up thanks to that dress, the foot-washing machine for cows revealed at the Balmoral Show earlier this month and Osama Bin Laden found and shot dead have all surprised us during the months of April and May.
I add to this list a small restaurant in Groomsport, Co Down, run by an Austrian, Fritz Machala and his wife Sharon. Strudel Bistro, barely more than five months old, is a revelation. A modest-looking restaurant that looks and feels far more like a café, Strudel is nonetheless home to some marvellous cooking and baking.
The cream-coloured, wood-panelled dining room faces the sea, which you can glimpse through the trees across the road lining the shore. If you look carefully you’ll also catch sight of the famous Cockle Row cottages. There are paintings all around the place adding a bit of colour and cheer to the otherwise canteen-like dining room.
Within seconds, though, the unmistakable stamp of quality is making itself felt as Amy the manager invites me to sit “anywhere at all”. What, even in front of the big window at that table for four? “Work away.”
The clean, simple menu is quickly brought with an apology that the crab’s off today. The bad weather has meant the crab man wasn’t able to get to the pots. Shame, but there’s lots more from the sea to take my mind off the loss.
There’s seafood chowder on the lunch menu (Strudel opens for lunches every day except Monday; on Fridays and Saturdays it does dinner too) with home-baked wheaten bread; Ewing’s smoked salmon with salad, cucumber, radish, and dill; pan-roast cod with noodles, sugar snap peas, baby corn and sweet chilli dressing. Before I order the smoked haddock, however, there’s a moment when I spot a southern-fried chicken fillet with garlic potatoes, Cajun braised beans and coriander, and a stuffed pork fillet with champ, carrots, cabbage and rosemary cream go past.
The place is filling up very quickly this Wednesday. Some ladies who lunch have come prepared with their bottle of wine — it’s BYO — and the overall impression is that of a rather exclusive club for fifty- and sixty-somethings. I look around and realise I fit in perfectly. I am about to cry in despair when the soup of the day, cream of asparagus, is delivered with two turf-like slabs of rough-cut dark wheaten. The joy of it! The deep, sensuous flavours of the world’s naughtiest vegetable, married to the earthy, oven-fresh crumbly wheaten and melting butter immediately reset the mood to invigorated.
A quick check by the server that all is well and the next 10 minutes are a perfect time of soup, people-watching and occasional looks out the window to the sea. Lord Rathcavan once said “the best meal is alone with a maitre d’ for company”.
Next up is the smoked haddock, which arrives on a little pedestal. I forgot that underneath is a baby asparagus tart and beneath that again, some steamed spinach. All around the plate are new, boiled potatoes covered in just enough golden, buttery Hollandaise. The piece is a generous big lump of a thing and it flakes at the first hint of the knife. I couldn’t fault it. Everything on the plate was a complete delight. Even the shortcrust pastry of the tart — I’m not a fan — is perfectly brittle and crumbles away to mix with the egginess and asparagus spears.
Again, a single check by the server, and I’m on my own again eavesdropping and watching. The place is now full. People must come from Bangor and Donaghadee because Groomsport itself is a tiny dot of a place. Thing is, it’s one of those places worth travelling to. Especially at the current prices — the haddock dish is £6.75.
But does Strudel actually serve apfel strudel? Yes, of course. Among the traditional Ulster tray bakes and buns, pies and cakes, there is proper, pukka Austrian strudel served with whipped cream. This is the final triumph of the lunch. The delicate, papery crust tears and rips underneath its snowy covering of icing sugar. Inside, the beautifully fresh-tasting apples, raisins and cinnamon are warm and soft. A little moment of Vienna wafts in and, taken with a decent coffee, it provides a new perspective on the place.
I ask for the bill and fall off my chair. Three courses, a bottle of sparkling water and a coffee for under £16. This is a gift. You must go there immediately, claim your table by the window, accept your autumn years with grace and thank God you read this.
Soup & wheaten £3.50
Bottle water £1.50