An odd new template for successful bistros in Northern Ireland has emerged in the last couple of years.
Prompted by a desperate desire to break down the old fears of restaurant-going (fears of not knowing which wine to order, which foot to hold your fish fork in, which glass to use for the cordial and other daft Edwardian restaurant etiquette) there has been a 1970s punk rebellion equivalent in the culture of eating out.
This rebellion has relied on the deconstruction of front of house formalities so people don’t feel so threatened. But it hasn’t done away with the strict codes of good culinary practice in the kitchen. As a result, we can now find ourselves eating excellent food in the warm embrace of the most untidy looking restaurants.
Il Pirata, ACE, Governor Rocks, Neill’s Hill, Home and a few more of these Brooklyn-trend bistros are now joined by The Rabbit Rooms in Bangor.
The Rabbit Rooms have been around almost two years now but their sinister black exterior (from the days when it used to be the Black Boat), downstairs bar and motley collection of doorway smokers at the entrance may have deterred many.
Past the fags, cracked-glass door and up those stairs is the restaurant. At first sight it appears to have been decorated by a few talented vandals. There are cheeky and witty defacements of framed pictures featuring a cartoon rabbit dotted around the place. It’s funny and attractive and looks like a clever tribute to Banksy. There is a dark colourless carpet, a tacky bar, wood panelling but not the posh kind, rickety tables, leatherette sofas and chairs. Throughout this Sunday evening, a stream of sailors, visitors and others from overseas, many clutching guide books, will be accommodated in the Rabbit Rooms. The advisor is looking at me crossly as I’m being a bit sniffy about the look of the place. But I soon settle.
A window table for four was booked an hour or two earlier and the view outside is to the marina car park and the hideous harbourmaster’s office. You can’t really see the sea. We quickly look back at the menus on the table, doubling up as place settings. The choice is extensive and populist, ranging from burgers and pizzas to ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. Kids love this stuff, but there’s more on the regular menu. Strangford mussels come in all kinds of guises, among them classic mariniere, Thai-style mild green curry or cider and bacon.
The specials menu arrives on a clipboard disguised as a nice piece of greensward and quickly a happy glow envelopes us. Flame-grilled Spanish sausage hot dogs with gherkins, American mustard, homemade ketchup and a side of fries is tempting but then so is the chilli con carne over rice with Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream and guacamole or the flame-grilled steak sandwich in ciabatta with roast mushroom, tobacco onions, pepper sauce and side of fries. The more conventional is available too in the form of roast ribeye of beef, served with mashed potato, roast potato, Yorkshire pudding, honey glazed carrots, peas and gravy.
My mussels mariniere arrive with a crispy white roll. They are spot-on and plentiful — fat and juicy and, thank the angels, there is parsley. On this point alone I would award the Rabbit Rooms with a purple heart for bravery and courage in the light of the overwhelming invasion of coriander.
Coriander is not right with everything and yet it pops up everywhere chopped far too generously over dinners and lunches ruining everything in its path. But parsley is here and I’m thrilled to see it. And what better than a bit of garlic and parsley with the white wine and mussel juices?
The advisor’s nachos are hailed as another small triumph with plenty of heat in the jalapeno peppers and pico salsa and loads of comfort in the melted cheese and sour cream. The twin hot dogs are carefully put together, the finger rolls lightly crisped in the oven, the chips hand-cut with skin on and the sausage dark and almost merguez-like. The advisor’s burger is crumbling and fabulously tasty. The Cajun ribs have loads of flavour but it appears they haven’t been slow cooked and are therefore on the tougher side of tender.
The Rabbit Rooms may not be everyone’s choice because of the dark look of the place. But the front of house presence, charming service, quality and low price make it a must-visit. Your family will thank you for it.
Nachos x 2 £12
Moules mariniere £6
Chicken strips £9
Hot dogs £8
Additional sauce £0.50
Oat toffee pie £4
Diet Pepsi x 2 £3.40
Sierra Nevada beer £3.80
Bottle of Montana red £17
Bottle sparkling water £4
30 Quay Street, Bangor BT20 5ED
Tel: 028 9146 7699