Judging a book by its cover is part of human nature. We can’t help ourselves from being prejudiced and jumping to conclusions — don’t like the look of him or her; can’t have that foreign stuff that passes for food when we’re on holiday; don’t trust people from Londonderry ... the list of prejudices is endless and our capacity for suspicion and loathing is frightening.
I knew about the Dirty Duck in Holywood outside Belfast for years. But I never went near it. Why? Because I thought anywhere with a name like that would be a hole.
The name is fine for a pub in middle England where humour remains under-developed and where jokey names for pubs like the Dirty Duck, the Spotted Dick and the Nun’s Bad Habit might make people laugh no matter how many thousands of times they drive past it. But for us sophisticates in Ulster, this is just cretinous.
I thank the advisor for having turned me on this one. Last weekend she said: “Let’s have an early Sunday tea somewhere with a view”. She’d been to the Dirty Duck a few days earlier with business associates following a long day and had been impressed with the bar (when she came home that evening, I could tell how very impressed she had been by the bar).
I booked a table for five by phone and was asked if any of the party was under 18 as anyone under that age had to be off the premises by 8.30pm. The table was booked for 6.30pm so the three accompanying teens would have plenty of time to eat and skulk. I’m not sure if this is a Dirty Duck policy or a licencing requirement but while it’s acceptable for a bar, it seems odd for a restaurant.
Despite this and my antennae fine-tuned to anything which might prove my prejudices about the Dirty Duck were right, I had to acknowledge the immediate sense of warmth and hospitality as soon as we reached the top of the stairs above the bar.
Incidentally, the bar is a wonderfully cosy and compelling place. I fully understand how the adviser might have been lured into staying a while. The views from the restaurant are spectacular, stretching from the industrial mouth of the Lagan to the left, and scanning across the entire Belfast Lough as far as Kilroot and beyond to the right. That’s a view of about 10 miles of Antrim coastline and as far as I know, nowhere else can offer such a broad spectrum in one eyeful. It’s hypnotic, particularly on a pleasant evening but when the drinks orders were taken and the menus arrived, focus on the job in hand was quickly adjusted. We had seen dishes of crab claws, nachos, chicken, burgers, fish, salads and many other very appetisingly presented meals delivered to various tables. We could tell the fodder was going to be good. And, bar one or two very minor disappointments, it was.
There were specials of the day including a mushroom and bacon soup, mackerel fillet on a bed of potato salad, fishcakes and salmon.
The teens go for nachos which arrive in a bowl beneath a weight of chilli con carne covered in guacamole and cheese — it’s big volume stuff. The advisor’s crab claws are top class. Not a hint of chilli for once, the warm crab claws come in a light buttery jus with garlic, cherry tomatoes and chopped scallions served with some toasted ciabatta. She’s delighted. My little mackerel fillet is crispy-skinned and tender with that sharp tanginess on the tip of the tongue. The potato salad could have done with a bit more mayo but there are plenty of scallions to give it bite.
One teen’s main of smoked haddock is memorable. This is not dyed smoked haddock and it has a gentle smokiness which makes it far lighter. With some garlic fries, it is a hit. The other teens go for the same crab claws and for a moment there is no skulking and lots of finger-sucking, napkin-waving, smiling activity.
The advisor and my fishcakes are a great measure of the Dirty Duck’s approach to catering. Always a reliable measure of mean-ness thanks to the easy-to-follow potato to fish ratio, these fishcakes have gone the other way. A little more potato might have been welcome! But I only say this because the two very generous cakes came with perfectly poached eggs on top. When you cut into that ooze, you want something to soak it up.
An apple crumble was textbook with a little pot of custard and a scoop of ice-cream. The apples beneath the crumble had plenty of zing and acidity to play with the other softer, sweeter flavours and textures.
If you’re prejudiced like me then a trip to The Dirty Duck may well provide the right kind of therapy and the road to rapid recovery.
Crab claws £6.50
Nachos x 2 £11
Fishcakes x 2 £19
Large crab claws £10.50
Apple crumble £5
Soft drinks x 6 £9
Pint Guinness x 2 £6.80
Sparkling water £1.50
Glass sauvignon blanc £4.45
3 Kinnegar Road, Holywood, Co Down BT18 9JN.
Tel: 028 9059 6666