Braving the seaside windchill of Newcastle in winter is rewarded with a warming meal at the Mourne Cafe
What does a seaside town do in the winter? If everything — the attractions, activities and accommodation — is geared towards the beach and the outdoors and warm weather, what happens when January comes?
Most of us think these places become bleak and mothballed. After all, things close for the season. The sound of seagulls, creaking wind-rocked joke shop signs and waves crashing on pebbles — the loneliest sounds in the world — replace the sunny disco beats of the amusement arcades and funfairs.
Behind this veneer of rainswept misery, however, the hearts of some of these towns beat loudly and solidly thanks to good restaurants. Bangor, Donaghadee, Portrush, Warrenpoint and Newcastle all share the same winter-busting jewels that include the excellent tables of Coyle’s Bistro and Jeffers, Grace Neill’s, the Ramore Restaurants, Restaurant 23 and now, in Newcastle, the Mourne Cafe.
Born of the same loins that gave us the successful Mourne Seafood Bars in Dundrum and Belfast, the Mourne Cafe more or less achieves the look and feel of what you’d think is a classic seaside caff.
Without actually displaying any Formica anywhere, the modern, echoey surfaces of Mourne’s interior are reminiscent of the big, bright and high-ceilinged cafes of Ulster beach towns of the Fifties.
There’s a tall bar with all the right twinkling lights and bottles along one wall and the odd, triangular-shaped room that feels like a converted cinema lobby is lit by huge, crazy red eggshells, split in the middle and hanging from the ceiling to give off a light that casts odd shapes and shadows across the room. The current fad for long and deep-coloured net curtains is wholeheartedly embraced here.
The cafe is located just off Newcastle’s Central Promenade at Bejonis Corner beside the entrance to the Donard Park car park, and there is a sea view for a couple of tables at the big front window.
It’s not a cosy place. You can feel the faint memory of a summer season in the decor, even if it only recently opened. Its older brothers, the Mourne Seafood Bars, are distinctly warmer and more welcoming on a winter’s day but this doesn’t mean you should avoid the cafe until next July. Because if it’s a bit weak on the snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug front, the menu nonetheless provides welcome sanctuary from the blistering cold and windchill outside.
Everything about the menu is right. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a mature, market-sensitive and location-aware restaurant. It’s also exactly what eluded food lovers in this country for so long — fresh ranges of shellfish and wet fish alternatives to endangered cod. Incidentally, less emphasis on fish in the cafe’s menu than in the seafood bars means there’s a lot more choice for those who don’t like anything with scales and webbed tails.
A starter of crab claws (my son, recently arrived from New York where he’s been living for the last seven years, had steered clear of these as they were described as ‘crab toes’ in line with fishmonger speak and therefore hardly worth the effort) in garlic butter and chilli was generous, warm and savoury in all the right places. The delicate crab flavours still alive and zingy in the perfectly solid claw meat, made easily removable thanks to expert shell-cracking, were made all the more fabulous by the butter. An accompanying salad was misplaced and unnecessary — this is messy finger food and dribbling warm butter over lettuce leaves does nothing for them and converts the finger-licking delight into an unappetising sight — best just leave the leaves out of it.
The chowder, along with other dishes, can be ordered as a starter or as a main. It was light but rich and dolled up a bit with mussels in their shells. A chowder is often an excuse to use up lots of milk and spuds and not so much cream or seafood, but in this case it was excellent and well balanced. So was the soup of the day — a bowl of fresh, steaming tomato and basil.
The Adviser’s fishcake with chips was another quality offering, only this time the generosity seemed to have stopped. Fair enough, you might think, at £6.95 to be served one small fishcake (lost and forlorn on that bloody great bed of leaves again) but the negative impact could so easily have been avoided by charging £1.50 more and putting two fishcakes on the plate.
Having said that, it was more fish than potato with hints of Thai lightness and spiciness and a crumbly, crackly fried breadcrumb exterior.
A daube of salmon presented as a pink seductress stretched out on a very comfortable-looking chaise longue of mash was accompanied by a dill sauce, small drops of which were tested by all at the table. Universally declared as perfect and in the right amount, the sauce made the point that sometimes it’s ok to be decadent and a bit complicated with good fish.
A Dover sole might not require anything more than some butter, but salmon and mash were just made for a good dill sauce. At £10.45 this was also a bargain.
Children are well catered for here with the usual suspects on the menu. I’ve said it before, but just because fast food has been so badly represented by the big chains doesn’t mean it’s invariably bad. The Mourne Cafe’s chicken bites are as wholesome as anything home-cooked, as are their chunky chips.
We didn’t stick around for desserts, but looking over our shoulders at the Mourne Cafe’s bright lights as the biting wind blew down from snow-covered Slieve Donard behind us, I couldn’t help but think that Newcastle, or at least a small part of it, had now become all-weather, year-round and worth the trip off-season. It’s amazing what a decent cafe can do.
Crab toes x 2 £11
Fishcake x 2 £13.90
Chicken burger £8.75
Chicken bites £4.95
Chunky chips £2.95
Sparkling water x 2 £7.10
Glass wine £3.10
Diet coke x 2 £3