Joris Minne: Governor Rocks
Jason More’s new bistro in Donaghadee is serving up some of the finest seafood in Northern Ireland
The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who enter a room and brighten everything up, and those who enter the same room and suck the life out of the place.
Too many restaurants in Belfast are run by the second sort. If you want me to tell you who they are, then you’ll have to tweet me away from the lawyers’ stern gaze.
But one man who enlivens our existences is Jason More. Described accurately as a culinary Che Guevara a few years ago thanks to the brilliant food he was producing at Soviet regime farm collective prices in Belfast’s CoCo restaurant, the long-haired lad from Lancashire has repeated the trick in Donaghadee.
Not that the Donaghadee set couldn’t afford to pay top dollar for some surf ‘n’ turf at the golf club, or the emperor-sized langoustines served a few doors down at Pier 36, of course, but here he is once more with a great offer, the new seafood bistro, Governor Rocks.
More has gone for the mismatched furniture thing — which is ok as long as you’ve paid a good interior designer to make it look like it all came together accidentally, but has actually spent hours and hours measuring the auction-bought chairs to make sure they fit the tables. In this case, the Governor Rocks actually does look like it all came together accidentally and the tables and chairs have an unhappy relationship. But to be honest, when those charming servers get a hold of your attention and start doing their stuff and you scan the menu, you forget the physical discomfort pretty quickly.
Giant crab claws, trios of fish in lobster sauce with samphire, whole chargrilled mackerel, smoked pale haddock risotto, the Governor Rocks menu is a list of mouthwatering promises, printed earlier in the day in the time-honoured style of proper restaurants who approach each service with passion, commitment and a deep desire to please you. (There are a few meat options too.)
Four of us are quickly found a table in the restaurant which, only four weeks into operation, is already commanding 100 covers a day and 160 the Friday night we were there. Are there that many starved folk in Donaghadee who keep going back or what? It’s only when you start eating that you realise that if you’re going to be the neighbourhood restaurant who build loyalty you have to be that good. And it is.
The advisor’s crab claws in garlic butter are like no other you will see anywhere. Even the Harbour Inn in Annalong, whose crab claws are exemplary, cannot compete with the huge, perfectly cooked monsters served up as a starter for a fiver. Pre-cracked to make life a bit easier for the diner, they are among the finest I’ve ever had, and, while my preference is always for cold seafood, this is phenomenally good.
Charlotte and I have the dressed crab instead. Not many people take pleasure in the brown meat of a crab — it can be too powerful — yet head chef Cameron Carter’s preparation, a magnificent display of white and darker meats is fine and bursting with flavours. And with this kind of food, volume is important. There’s plenty of it and a few slices of wheaten to help along the way.
The server tells us that some fresh turbot has been landed within the hour and is served in filets. Jason says the great big bin lid-sized turbots haven’t really made an appearance this season so far, which is worrying, otherwise he and Cameron would have done them on the bone. But the offer of the filets with that lobster sauce and samphire is irresistible. The advisor asks for the trio of salmon, cod and monkfish but can she swap the cod for hake? No problem.
Sides of chips, chilli chips and a rocket parmesan salad add to the party, which has been partly fuelled by the bring-your-own Muscadet sourced at the nearby Russell’s offy. For your information, the off-licence has a great stock of very chilled whites, so if you’re making the journey there from Belfast, don’t bother bringing the drink with you — just get it there, where it will be straight from the fridge.
The Governor Rocks is so significant it has now created a critical mass for Donaghadee as a budding culinary destination. Food as entertainment has long been available at Grace Neill’s, and Pier 36 has held its own for years, attracting regulars from much farther out than Donaghadee itself.
The fact that it’s on the seafront is a wonderful point as when autumn and winter arrive, bringing with them warmth and sunshine (I’m not kidding — remember last winter?), there will be fewer greater pleasures available than to step out of Governor Rocks with a full belly for a post-prandial dander to the lighthouse before heading home.
Crab claws x 2 £10
Dressed crab x 2 £13
Turbot x 2 £33
Trio of fish £18.50
Desserts x 4 £20
Sides x 3 £9
Diet Coke £1.50
Corkage (wine £3, beer 50p) £3.50
27 The Parade, Donaghadee, BT21 0HE
Tel 02891 88481727