Restaurant Review: Upstairs at Joe’s
23 Mill Street, Cushendall, Co Antrim. Tel: 028 2177 2384
Armagh for the cup. Donegal for the holidays. Or so it used to be. Now Co Antrim is the preferred sanctuary of Belfast's baby-boomers who flock to the beaches, rocky coastline, glens, woods and live music to get away from it all. And it's only 45 minutes away. At the heart of this wild playground is Cushendall, part capital of the Glens, part star of the sea.
Add to this the bars and cafes, golf course, pretty little streets and magnificent curfew tower in its centre (originally built to lock up rioters and drunkards) and you have the makings of a very attractive destination. Is it any wonder people love it?
Upstairs at Joe's, the restaurant on the floor above Jonny Joe McCollam's bar, is a fine string in Cushendall's bow. Accessed through the old courtyard, the intimate restaurant opens from Easter to September (the chef winters in Galgorm Castle in the Eagle restaurant, where he supports head chef Chris Bell).
But during those precious months, it seems a lot is packed into the menu. The lunchtime specials on this weekday are a statement of intent.
This is not your average breadcrumbs-on-sea joint. There is salt and chilli fillet of ling with fennel salad, chips and cool mint raita, piri piri prawns with rocket salad and warm foccacia, Glenarm salmon featuring colcannon cake, leeks and porcini cream, sautéed scallops with samphire and mussel gnocchi and, to crown it all, a grilled half lobster (“fresh in this morning as is all the fish,” says Hayley, the server with the golden touch) with a shellfish platter.
Riding shotgun with me is Naz Din, who is in the restaurant business himself. He's had a hard night and just wants to put his slippers on and watch the telly.
What he doesn't want is to be dragged up the Antrim coast on a rainy day. But he warms to the cosiness, the low ceilings, the impressive service and the chilled bottle of Coors Light that has all the corrective qualities of a hot shower and a pot of tea.
And when he tucks into the fishcake, he finds the colour back in his cheeks. The fishcake has a space alien look: it looks conventional but it has sprouted spikes of fried noodles, which gives it the appearance of a cartoon anti-shipping mine. He loves its spiciness and unexpected mix of textures and considers introducing something similar in his own place.
A potted crab and salmon salad with guacamole is undoubtedly fresh, but I'm not convinced by the mix. Smoked salmon and crab don't work together because their textures are incompatible.
While crab and guacamole are good together, the soft, melting smoked salmon upsets the balance with its silky smoothness. It's the wrong outfit for the wrong event.
The grilled lobster appears surrounded by a magnificent array of langoustines, crab claws and mussels. There are greens of samphire, rocket and fennel among all the shellfish. It looks like a medieval feast styled specifically for a royal occasion in a scene from Game of Thrones.
The star of the show is the half lobster and its giant claw. Well seasoned, cooked just right, neither overwhelmed nor obscured by the mornay, the lobster meat is plentiful, firm and juicy.
The partially cracked claw opens up to reveal an intact inner muscle right to the tip of the pincer. It is hugely enjoyable and made all the more so by the chunky chips whose flavour and crispiness would put them up alongside Michael Deane's triple-cooked jobs.
Upstairs at Joe's is good enough to be considered a destination restaurant. It's not fancy, but it is very welcoming and the people here have a full understanding of hospitality.
It's a shame there are only a few weeks left before it closes for the winter (Jonny Joe's downstairs will keep the musical flame lit and the pints flowing in the mean time), so if you get a chance to get to Cushendall before the end of September, give it a rattle. I know I'll be back.
Salmon crab salad £5.75
Lobster half x 2 £43
Espresso x 2 £3.10
Coors Light £2.90
Small water x 4 £6.40