The Antrim town of Bushmills is finally on the culinary map, thanks to an outstanding restaurant serving gorgeous Gallic delights.
Bushmills, the oddly charmless village plonked on one of the greatest stretches of coast line in Ireland, has never been fit for purpose as a tourism destination. The whiskey distillery may be an international hit with visitors (although they are limited as to how many they can actually accommodate) and the Bushmills Inn is a fabulously atmospheric hotel with a bar straight off Universal Studios’ set design book on olde Irish pubs.
But frankly, that’s it. You’d expect a bit more from a town which lies close to some of the best golf links courses in the world, the Giant’s Causeway and that famous distillery. Bushmills might be on the international tourist trail by accident of geography but this may change when the new Bushmills Dunes Resort & Spa finally starts construction next year in time for completion to greet hordes of visitors and golfers coming over for the British Open at Portrush.
It’s not all depressed and false shop fronts, though. The French Rooms, a restaurant/gift shop combo, which only opened about 18 months ago, have had a major impact on the town’s perception. While the union flags flutter and flap in the main street creating a distinctive tone in what should be a neutral holiday town, the vibe of liberal and relaxed conviviality inside the French Rooms is unmistakably welcoming.
Walking through the cute shop reveals a never-ending series of cosy sitting areas, café, restaurant, garden and gazebo. It’s like something created by the makers of Avoca but this time they went all French with a strong Glens accent thrown in.
And the delight intensifies as you read the menu. You will find Kearney Blue cheese, smoked salmon and a burger made from Antrim lamb as well as Alsace’s second most famous export: the tarte flambee, a proper croque monsieur or madame and a tomato-based onion soup. (Alsace’s first culinary export is choucroute).
Three of us had a knock-out lunch there recently. The local man, Don Wilmont, to whom I will forever remain indebted for choosing the place, had the tasting platter which is a tray of three different starters — the choice of three is whatever you want from the starter menu. In this case he took the soup, the pate and spicy prawns pot. The little trinity, presented on a wooden board, constituted a robust lunch.
The Scottish visitor with us couldn’t keep away from the tarte flambee after we saw one delivered to another table. This pizza-like dish was the length and size of a cricket bat, and it comes in three guises. The tarte with cream cheese, streaky bacon, sautéed onion and crème fraiche is the one to go for although there is a ‘vegetalien’ with fresh tomato, basil and garlic, sautéed onions, grilled aubergines, mushrooms, olives, ‘kookycook’ pesto, red peppers and dressed leaves.
I had a bit of the bacon one (he couldn’t finish it) and can vouch for its sinful, salty pleasure.
But king of the lunches was the lamb burger served on two slices of thick, toasted brioche bread with melted gruyere and red onions and skinny French fries. The minced lamb was juicy, not too dense, lean and absolutely packed with fresh lamb flavours. It was further enhanced with some lightly added herbs and spices giving it a light minty breath. I would go back for this alone.
The magic of the French Rooms is that they are doing sound French bistro food in Antrim portions: what could possibly be better than this, I wondered until the croque banane arrived. This toasted brioche sandwich (you can never get enough brioche) is packed with sliced banana, cream cheese, brown sugar and a sticky caramel sauce. It’s like a banoffee for grown-ups. It is also the size of your front door. Two front doors, actually. And it is absolutely lush. The brioche is lightly crispy and sweetly buttery and then you have all that soft moistness in the middle.
The French Rooms have given Bushmills a firm kick up the backside since I last visited at the town. The restaurant is outstanding with the kind of service at which Antrim people excel: charming, assertive, confident and kind.
Small breads £0.95
Spicy prawn pot £2.95
Lamb burger £9.85
Tarte flambee £8.85
Tomato salad £2.85
Croque banane £5.25
Petits fours £4.85
Soft drinks £6.05