How slick coastal restaurant The Bureau is putting Jordanstown back on the map.
Some of the most memorable paintings of Irish landscapes and seascapes are based on Antrim’s mighty and varied geography. The rolling glens, the dramatic coastlines and the occasional moments of sheer grace and beauty when the two meet, are all captured in romantic and impressionistic works from the early 20th century. Early tourism posters commissioned and published by the Ulster Tourism Development Association, the precursor to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, made great use of these.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, paintings of Irish scenes by Paul Henry were cleverly reworked as posters promising a land of myth, mystery and magic. The later paintings of WH Conn and Norman Wilkinson are equally breathtaking in their boldness and confidence. Original prints occasionally come up for auction and are considered collectors’ items.
One Wilkinson which shows Belfast Lough (‘The Gateway To Happy Holidays’) painted as if from the bridge of a ship sailing into the city, is inspired. The 19th century novelist Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray (the man who said the Giant’s Causeway was worth seeing but not worth going to see) had affirmed that entering Belfast Harbour had the same impact as entering Rio de Janeiro. Mmm. You can see the image for yourself on the back wall of Bennett’s café restaurant on the Belmont Road and make up you own mind.
I reckon this famous image was painted a few hundred yards offshore from a point in Jordanstown that is marked today by the spot occupied by The Bureau bar-restaurant.
Jordanstown is a featureless little place. As you might expect of a place between Carrickfergus and Belfast, Jordanstown’s tiny heart barely beats. The place clings like a barnacle to the great hull of the university to one side as traffic rushes past on the dual carriageway cutting off any connection with the sea on the other side.
Nonetheless, The Bureau has fought valiantly and successfully with this disability. It has somehow turned the disadvantage of location into a positive attribute by exploiting the sea view (otherwise only visible with a bit of serious neck-craning) through the construction of a patio that is more of a platform overlooking by a couple of feet the busy road to the lough beyond. Not only this but it has created a meaningful reason to visit Jordanstown other than collecting your children from their hall of residence at the end of term.
Proof that life will exist anywhere, The Bureau is an elegant, modern and bright restaurant with a bar taken right out of the Tom Cruise movie, Cocktail.
A local university man, DY, accompanied me — his view was that we were on the Ulster equivalent of the Ventura Highway in southern California. He was right. It was a hot day and the dust was flying. I suddenly felt we were in an Elmore Leonard novel and everything took on a new perspective.
Even the shaky start to lunch seemed to have been scripted. A request for a starter from the set menu followed by something from the a la carte menu kick-started the scene.
“You can’t mix them,” the server said. I channelled Elmore Leonard and imagined DY getting a bit antsy, a bit Joe Pesci, at this insolence. But because the server was pleasant enough about it, DY switched the safety catch back on, put the revolver back in the shoulder holster and placed a different order.
The starters arrived sharpish a few minutes later. They were the original order, after all. We shrugged, looked at each other and got stuck in. It was a simple comedy moment.
Glenarm salmon fishcakes with prawns, plenty of them, a bit heavy on the spuds and a profound uncertainty as to whether or not whole king prawns work in something like this, gave rise to doubt.
For some, me included, king prawns are an unwelcome interference in a fishcake, no matter how fresh, tasty and well cooked. A salmon cake should be mashed up, a bit herby perhaps, enough potato to keep it together but not so much as to smother the subtle salmon flavours. But it shouldn’t have three great big prawns in the middle. It’s not right, although I respect the innovative approach.
Incidentally, the alternatives from the a la carte menu, which we had been asked to choose from, were cod and crab claw cakes. I now wished we’d received these instead.
A much more conventional dish of plaice fillets with bright green, gorgeously salty samphire, pak choi, Portavogie prawns (this time warmly welcomed) with a butter cream and lobster sauce and sautéed potatoes was completely absorbing and enveloping.
DY felt the whole dish was too salty and a bit overwhelming and he had a point, but I liked it. Generous fillets of small plaice (they looked awfully young) were on the mark and the accompanying bits and bobs made for a beautifully balanced dish. Everything had been very lovingly put together and the respect and attention given to their creation was unmistakable. Presentation counts for a lot.
The Bureau does things very well — the shaky starter was removed from the bill without asking, even though we had displayed utmost grace by immediately accepting the management’s apologies. This kind of customer service should be the standard. Sadly it is not and we have to take note of places that adhere to older conventions and values. The Bureau is one of them, for all its funky looking modernity.
The restaurant does other tempting lunchtime stuff — rump of beef with chips, tobacco onions and Bushmills whiskey sauce, pan-roast bream with crab-crushed Comber potatoes and summer greens with a lobster bisque — and there are vegetarian options.
Two courses for £10.95 or three for £12.95 gives you an idea of the value for money. But it will be the service and attention to detail that will bring me back.
Anyone who can make Jordanstown a destination while the cars, trucks and buses fly past on the dusty Californian Interstate outside deserves a close look.
Fish of the day x 2 £21.90
Sparkling water x 2 £3.60