Northern Ireland doesn’t really do charming little ports the way the French and the English do. We don’t have Brixham or Concarneau.
Down south they have Kinsale, Galway and a string of small working harbours with their own charms, from Killybegs to Dingle. But up here we struggle to find a charming little fishing port in which to spend an idle moment admiring the boats, the streets and fishermen’s houses, bars and inns. Strangford is probably the prettiest we have. Across the Narrows is Portaferry, yet it seems depressed behind that smiling primrose façade.
But Annalong has something rare — a scale of operation that matches the activities of a tiny Victorian-era port, a toytown harbour and the appealing Harbour Inn overlooking the small crab and prawn boats that come in and out to unload their pots and creels.
On a June weekend, not even the massive stone piers that create an almost water-tight harbour can stop the boats tossing and bobbing with vigour as the heavy swell comes through the narrow entrance.
It’s an ageless scene. Men are on the quayside hoisting crab pots from the small boats while others stand in the protection of a covered external area of the Harbour Inn drinking pints. The large inn has two bars downstairs and a restaurant upstairs, the Upper Deck. From here you can get a clear view of any action below. Panoramic views allow your eye to sweep from the top of craggy Slieve Binnian to your left, down to the mill on the other side of the harbour and out to sea beyond the ancient quays.
At Mussenden Temple on the north coast, there is an inscription that, loosely translated, says very smugly: “How nice it is to be safe in here while we look at the ships tossed by storms out at sea.”
On a rough June day I have the same impression watching the fishermen on those tiny boats heading back out into the driving wind and rain. But this concern quickly passes as thoughts turn to the fruits of their labours — crab. If anywhere in the north should be good for crab, Annalong is the place.
And the Harbour Inn’s menu is, thankfully, full of it. There’s Annalong crab salad with dill mayonnaise set on a bed of mixed leaves, crab claws pan-fried in a garlic herb butter, served in tossed salad leaves and drizzled with Caesar dressing and Harbour Inn dressed crab consisting of fresh crab combined with cracked black peppercorns, garlic and herbs on a bed of creamed rice.
That’s just the starters. Among the mains is a very appealing list of seafood dishes, including baked crab, lobster thermidor (laced with champagne and a hint of mustard, then glazed with the classic cheese sauce), haddock mornay and many more. For those not comfortable with the fruits of the sea, there’s any amount of steak, duck, chicken and even a couple of decent-sounding vegetarian dishes, including crispy stir-fry of fresh vegetables in a basil and tomato sauce and glazed with Cheddar cheese, and a penne pasta with mixed peppers, onion and mushrooms in a wine and cream sauce.
I am alone today, having brought my youngest daughter and three teammates to a sports tournament in nearby Kilkeel (if there is anywhere decent in which to eat in Kilkeel, please let me know).
Time is tight and I order two starters, the chowder and the crab claws. The server says there isn’t any Annalong crab salad today (figure that one out, because they can still manage to put out the crab claws with garlic butter). Anyway, they are excellent. Cooked just right, generous in number, not overpowered by the garlic, the crab claws make for a messy fingers-only lunch, so it’s a good job I’m alone. The meat is succulent and firm and the flavours are subtle but very distinctive. The only downside is the tired-looking salad beneath. Such is the quality of the claws, it’s a shame to let them down with chopped, brown-edged iceberg leaves. Best to ask for them plain and simple.
The chowder is another generous offering and it is packed with salmon, prawns and some white fish. There is no sign of potato, which is a very welcome omission, but the creaminess of the chowder itself is slightly overwhelmed by a cornflower aftertaste. Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough dish, particularly on an inclement day.
The front-of-house service is charming and quick, the kitchen is well run and the whole place spotless. My review is based on two dishes, which were very good value for money. I’ll be going back with the family very soon to disprove the contention so far that the view is almost as important as the food in explaining the success of the Harbour Inn.
Crab claws starter £6.95
Sparkling water £1.40
6 Harbour Drive, Annalong, Co DownBT34 4TT
Tel: 028 4376 8678