Holywood star Fontana feels fresh and oozes quality
After more than two decades, this discreet restaurant still feels fresh and oozes quality
Holywood is the beau monde capital of North Down. Celebrity optician Geoff McConville lives there; Bill and Petra Wolsey have a large palace up the hill and Jamie Dornan stays in the Crescent when he's not in LA.
The high street charity shops are the tell-tale sign of prosperity and wealth and offer a choice of worn-once cast-offs so dazzling they attract shoppers from as far as the Malone Road in Belfast.
Pubs like the Maypole and the Dirty Duck do very well as they are considered proletarian but safe. When the really posh get hungry or have to entertain, they call in the caterers. The old money prefers, however, to climb the stairs to Fontana on the High Street.
The discreet restaurant of quality has been a Holywood landmark for more than two decades and still manages to keep a fresh feel. But the pressure is on. Around the corner is Noble, the cool young place which replaced the Iona. Back in the days when Holywood was slightly less self-conscious, the Iona was hip and cool, you sat on the wide staircase waiting for your table and the craic with others also waiting was always ninety. This laid back vibe is now in its second generation (there are cushions) and it has clearly been transferred successfully to the new Noble.
So how has Fontana dealt with the arrival of the young upstart? Almost imperceptibly, yet effectively. You climb those stairs (just like at Noble, although without the seating areas) and there's always someone pleasant ready to greet you at the summit. In this case it's the radiant Clare Rankin who comes from restaurant royalty and knows a thing or two about service.
The restaurant still looks and feels the same, all soft furnishings, slightly hushed tones and a sense of le vieux Holywood formality. It is Manhattan to Noble's Santa Monica. It's more grown up and comforting for that. There is more space, there are booths and there are acres of white linen. And then there's that selection of menus: mid-winter, lunch, dinner, Sunday, a la carte and small and large plates.
The arrival of new competition must have raised questions. Fontana owner Colleen Bennett could have stripped the place down and turned it into a trendy seaside shack with creaking timbers, beers with cute names and mismatched furniture, but instead, it appears she invested in the menus.
If I'm close, then that was the correct strategy because Fontana still has it by the spadeful. The food is exciting, occasionally overwrought and gimmicky, but very, very good.
Take the lunch menu which takes you on a global culinary trip of eight dishes including home-made pappardelle with pulled duck, fish tacos, spicy Korean chicken, risotto primavera, crab Louie, potato and pesto frittata and yufka rolls with za'atar.
Each dish is far more complete and varied than I've outlined here but it gives you an idea of the excitement you can indulge in at lunch time. The fish tacos for instance are made with haddock in tempura and come with a lush offering of scallions, jalapenos, coriander, red cabbage, pepper, chipotle yoghurt sauces, kiwi and lime and chilli salsa. It is tangy, refreshing and invigorating, just the thing you might need at lunch time.
The spicy Korean chicken is served with sticky rice, toasted sesame, pak choi, chilli, scallions and kim chee, the fermented flavours so peculiar to Korea shining through. If that's too exotic the risotto with its peas, courgette, lemon zest, parsley, mint and parmesan is equally lively but grounded and familiar.
Three of us had a go various dishes including the crab Louie, a salad of romaine hearts, radish, hard boiled eggs, tomato, pickled cucumber and seafood sauce with a main part of crab meat from Kilkeel.
The singular impression is that Fontana, without making any noise about it, is putting very fresh and wholesome food, dishes which are good for you, on the table and making a point of not making any claims of high fibre, low calories or any other health-giving qualities which might frighten away those of us who eat for pleasure and don't want to be reminded of our lack of virtue.
Fontana has held on to its Michelin Bib Gourmand for some years now which is no surprise. If you can't get a table at Noble don't for one minute think that just because Fontana can take you that it is second best. It isn't.
Crab Louie small plate .................. £7.50
Fish Tacos small ............................£7.50
Korean chicken large ...................£13.00
Pappardelle large ........................£13.00
Risotto small .................................£7.50
Total: ........................................ £53.00
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