How I was blown away by the food and the prices at Coyle’s in Bangor
The North Down seaside settlement of Bangor likes to portray itself as the playground town of the east coast. Busying itself with promotions designed to attract visitors to its marina, to the Pickie Park and Fun Pool and to some annual family events, Bangor’s authorities nonetheless struggle to strike the right chord, to entice and to seduce.
Yet what Bangor does have are two key components that keep its seaside ambitions afloat: Brian Meharg’s boat trips (his commentaries and reflections on life have established Brian as the Jack Dee comedy king philosopher of the ocean wave and he’s great with the kids) and a stable of seriously good and inexpensive restaurants.
Three or four months ago I reviewed the excellent Jeffers and came under fire from readers for inferring that this was the only good place to eat in the town. There are lots of good reports about the Boathouse, the Back Street Cafe and others that are now on the list of must-visits. But correcting an error means having to start somewhere and that point of departure would be Coyle’s Bistro.
There are two Coyle’s: the restaurant upstairs for the posher diner, and the more populist bistro on the ground floor.
In my experience, downstairs at Coyle’s is as close as I have ever come to a genuine Irish bistro. It has all the hallmarks of a quality, informal bar restaurant. People sit at the bar drinking pints, occasionally looking over their shoulders at the diners and slipping out every 20 minutes for a cigarette on the High Street.
The modest but cheerful decor, good banquettes and comfortable club chairs are just the ticket — as soon as you sit down, you’re at ease.
It’s a busy, bustling local place and the two male floor staff seem to know everyone, quietly acknowledging punters as they arrive and getting on with a slick and unobtrusive service. Because it’s a proper bistro you can get pints at the table or wines by the glass, just the thing for a relaxed evening with no big demands.
It was a bank holiday Monday evening when I phoned to book and the guy was very apologetic that the restaurant wasn’t open, just the bar, he explained, with a limited May Day menu. He started to read the menu down the phone. When he had finished about a quarter of an hour later I wondered what a full menu might look like.
Now that we were here and the menu was handed to us, we could see the full extent of the “limited” menu that, far from it, packed an A4 page with 19 dishes, not counting the desserts.
The casting could not have been better. Steamed mussels in curry, white wine and crème fraiche; macaroni cheese with smoked pancetta; escalope of pork, mushroom and caper sauce and new potatoes; wok-fried chicken and prawns, satay sauce, greens and rice — all exactly the right characters for the classic bistro experience.
A baked goat’s cheese tart with broad beans and coconut relish sounded risky to kick things off with but it worked because of the generous volumes of date jam and the rich flaky pastry. The date jam was presented as two tracks squeezed out of a tube along the length of the rectangular plate. Normally you see jam or thick sauce like this in small dots that are pointless — apart from very high-density items like foie gras or certain weapons-grade chilli sauces, you can’t taste things properly if there isn’t enough of it. With this volume of component
parts you had a chance to get to the bottom of every flavour and texture — the dry goat’s cheese relieved by the jam, the broad beans offering resistance and the coconut relish an elegant and sweet little surprise.
The adviser’s mussel starter is sometimes called ‘mouclade’, which is an ancient dish you can trace back to the earliest days of spice trading in the 16th century. The mussels sat in a bowl of wonderfully light curry sauce that, with its freshly chopped and integrated coriander, she said was a joy.
Ultimately a man of simple tastes, I could not resist the macaroni cheese — especially on this blustery bank holiday Monday evening. A generous bowl of the pasta sat deep in cheese sauce and lots of pancetta cubes underneath a blanket of melted cheddar. It was what it’s meant to be — comforting, reassuring, voluminous and ultimately dead simple. I’d have it again.
The wok-fried chicken was, however, at the opposite end of the flavourometer: aromatic, rich, sweet, sour and spicy. This was another generously appointed dish with plenty of peanutty satay sauce with a chilli kick and sting. Served with rice and greens, the adviser, not normally one for floral tastes, was utterly seduced by it.
The children’s meals were plain, wholesome and plentiful — which, although unconnected, reminds me that the vegetarian menu has six alternatives to choose from.
But never mind that, the crowning achievement of the evening was the desserts. This is the second time desserts have featured on these pages so prominently (the earlier one was Warrenpoint’s Restaurant 23) because of their ambition and complexity.
An iced banana mousse with coconut foam turned out to be so memorable as to remain firmly in my head ever since. Tiny roundels of banana, each with a miniature hat of glazed caramel, were breathtaking. Banana desserts can be overpowering but honestly, if it’s still on the menu by the time you get round to Coyle’s go for it. It’s a fiver and it should be £15.
The chocolate and lime posset, a thick and creamy two-tone spooning dessert is as restorative and comforting as its name implies. A sweet that can be traced back to the dark ages, the posset proved too robust for the children who were sharing it but I dipped into it and found it to be exquisite, with the tangy lime and pillow-soft chocolate mixing together very nicely in the big glass.
High quality at the prices Coyle’s charges makes the bistro one of Bangor’s strongest assets. If you ever wondered what a destination restaurant was, here it is.
Cheese tart: £6.50
Kid’s chicken burger: £4.50
Wok fried chicken: £9
Macaroni cheese: £7
Banana mousse: £5