A taste of the Bangor high life
It's hard to believe you're still in Northern Ireland. Smoky jazz on the stereo, a Conran-influenced interior . . . there's hope for us yet
Jeffers By The Marina
Address: 7, Gray's Hill, Bangor, Co Down
Tel: 9185 9555
There's an old joke that Bangor is divided into the haves and the have-yachts. As a blow-in resident, I could never see that much evidence of the sailing set - boy racers and thuggish-looking blokes with tatts were more like it.
Clearly, I wasn't patronising the right establishments. The lesser-spotted 'moneyed of north Down' was not to be found spilling out of the pubs on High Street at 1am of a Sunday - he was hiding out in discreet spots like Jeffers By The Marina, sating an appetite and slaking a thirst earned on the high seas or the golf links.
As someone who has often felt born into the wrong class, I immediately felt at home in Jeffers, a bijou cafe cum restaurant, which opened around two years ago in a prime position on the lovely Gray's Hill (an attractively sloped street peppered with art galleries and antique shops), just yards from the sea.
It has the feel of an authentic, relaxed, unpretentious wine bar, where people know about food and drink, but have no need to show off. So authentic, in fact, it's hard to believe you're still in Northern Ireland. Smoky jazz on the stereo, a Conran-influenced interior... there's hope for us yet.
And to the food. It's an informal, rolling sort of menu - you choose whether to have a dish as a starter or main, and mix and match to your heart's content. Very chi-chi.
There are brunch menus for weekend hangovers, an obvious interest in local and organic produce, and cute little touches like a cocktail of the month. Dishes range from the cheerfully simple Welsh rarebit or a potted smoked mackerel with watercress and wheaten to the more cordon-bleu: slow-cooked Strangford lamb with tomato, fennel, buttery saffron rice, creme fraiche and organic honey.
Friends who joined us for dinner have been frequenting Jeffers and they enthusiastically informed us that the menu changes often to reflect whatever fresh produce chef Stephen Jeffers has stumbled across - one of the things that draws them back.
Certainly, my organic goat-cheese fritters with tomato relish and spiced avocado were a tasty opener, if petite. Three balls the size of Ferrero Rochers came with just a daub each of guacamole and a normal portion of piquant tomato dipping sauce. Being a gorb, I could've done with more, but one mustn't carp. After all, if one wants to pass for a bona-fide member of the upper crust, one mustn't lick one's plate.
My other half started with the smoked Irish trout salad. He enjoyed the contrast between the sweet fish and tangy grapefruit, all finished off with some neutral greens and a strip of crispy, salty bacon.
He followed this up with a summer risotto of Irish prawns, preserved lemon and baby broad beans, which he pronounced delicious, with a slight qualifier: the lemon flavour was quite intense, and he felt the dish would work better as a starter (it was available as both starter and main).
My main was slightly disappointing, but it was probably my own fault for not ordering wisely. The specials menu clearly stated mussels with frites, yet I felt perversely affronted when no vegetables or side-salad appeared. Still, the mussels were fine, even if the accompanying juice was underwhelming (I could spy coriander and onion, but it still tasted a tad bland) and the skinny chips were as good as skinny chips can be.
Desserts were the winners of the evening, in my book. My chocolate brownie trifle - which admittedly sounds like something you'd associate with the other end of the digestive process - was a surprise hit, being more of a squidgy, velvety concoction requiring to be scooped out of a glass, rather than a jelly trifle.
My partner's espresso tart, which was served with ice-cream swimming in a pool of - wait for it - espresso, was not so much a caffeine hit as full-on electric-shock therapy. He was in jittery heaven.
Americanos all round finished things off on a pleasing high note and we departed merrily (a crisp Pinot Grigio had done the rounds) ... for a few jars at our favourite pub on High Street. Yes, pretending to be a Pringle-wearing outdoor type with plenty of leisure time and even more disposable income is all very tra-la-la, but old habits die hard. Now, whose round is it?