Joris Minne: The Boat house
It’s plain sailing in Bangor as double Dutch team serve up sublime food by the seaThe Dutch are good at extremes.
On the one hand they have a reactionary right-wing party that seeks to ban the Koran and anything Islamic; on the other, they have legalised prostitution and cafes where you can openly buy and smoke various vintages of hashish and marijuana.
They are good at reclaiming land and living 50 feet below sea level thanks to their ingenious dykes, while a Dutchman, Henk Lubberding, was one of the greatest mountain road racing cyclists ever to win a stage of the Tour de France.
The Dutch language is as impenetrable to us as ninth century Kazakh but this doesn’t matter as most Dutch people speak English better than we do.
Which is a good thing because without good English two Dutch brothers from Vlissingen — Joery and Jasper (pronounce the J as a Y) Castel — would never have survived their early expedition to Northern Ireland that began mysteriously in Keady.
I have friends in Keady so I need to watch what I say, but it’s widely accepted that this charming and ancient market town might be many things but it is not the culinary capital of Ulster.
Thankfully for us urbanistas, the brothers Castel soon realised their talents might receive wider acclaim elsewhere and moved last year to Bangor. They took over The Boat House, an established restaurant then under the excellent direction of Stephen Jeffers.
And what a blessing for Bangor because The Boat House is not only very good but it threatens to shift the centre of gravity of Northern Ireland’s slowly growing spectrum of fine dining away from the heart of Belfast and out to the Gold Coast.
The Boat House is a midget of a building that until only a few years ago was the harbour master’s office right on the waterfront.
Today the tiny stone-built remnant from the early 19th century is surrounded by a car park thanks to some land filling that has pushed the harbour edge a hundred feet farther out. But it still oozes character.
Despite its odd location (where the gently lapping waves have been replaced by cars on three sides while the fourth faces onto Seacliff Road where traffic flows past inches from the window) the Boat House is a beautiful sanctuary. Modern interior design is confident and cheerful and it underlines two of the key features that make fine dining a real treat: good lighting and physical comfort.
You enter by climbing the half-dozen outside stone stairs (there is wheelchair access through another ground floor door) and, once through the minute lobby, you go down another flight into the arched basement where boats were once kept.
Polished crystal, thick white linen, rough grey tweed banquettes and black leather chairs provide unfussy accommodation while whitewashed stone and brick walls are adorned with gently lit modern oil paintings. And surprisingly, there’s plenty of room down here too. It reminded me of Michael Deane’s place at Helen’s Bay railway station years back.
As the server who had greeted us so elegantly and warmly at the door was now handing out the menus (there was a two-course lunch for £17.50 as well as the main menu), a man with a pony tail who later revealed himself to be Jasper whispered something in her ear.
The message was important. Fresh lobster had just been delivered from the boat, having been liberated from the briny depths of Belfast Lough minutes earlier.
The late great Robbie Millar had always said the only way to eat lobster was to make sure it was in the sea within the previous hour.
The choice was therefore made. And what a revelation that turned out to be. Lobster rates third on my list of top crustaceans after spider crab and crab and I would rarely have it. For one thing it’s always outrageously dear but this was different and not expensive at £30 a pop.
We shared the 900g beauty that was split in two and came soaked in hot butter and a little garlic. Tender and juicy, perfectly done and served with a large mound of salty, buttery samphire, this was just the tops. Both items made the perfect couple. (Samphire is sometimes known as poor man’s asparagus. It’s much smaller and bright green. It is also crunchy and incredibly tasty with iron and dulse undertones when it’s this fresh). It was so good the adviser was prompted to declare she was coming back with her own money for dinner for the next 10 nights.
The veal that followed was no less impressive. Both the adviser and I had ordered it and were equally enthralled. Two hunks of meat came with battered deep-fried salsify (a bit like parsnip but more subtle) and a salsa verde with strong spinach tones.
The dry salsa verde in the Boat House is a Dutch take on the more common basil-based one and the dry northern European flavours were a welcome change and evocative of the vast windswept and wintery coastal plains of the Netherlands.
The accompanying inch-thick poached cubes of beetroot in balsamic vinegar with sesame seeds and small new potatoes roasted with rosemary provided a happy contrast while evoking even more Lowlands style and tastes.
The lobster bisque was a soup that tasted purely of lobster and not the usual indeterminate fishy mish-mash, and a sausage made of chicken and lobster was no less fine and yet child friendly.
An almond, lemon and polenta cake defied all laws of physics by combining moistness, richness and crumbliness all while remaining as light as whisked egg whites. It came with top class Glastry Farm lavender and honey ice-cream.
You have to hand it to the double Dutch team. They use local produce, are good crack and really belong in a top Amsterdam restaurant. Yet they’re over here and apparently enjoying themselves. I pray they stay longer in Bangor than they did in Keady.
Lobster for 2 £30
Lobster bisque £6.50
Lobster and chicken sausage £8.50
Veal for 2 £34
Sparkling water X 2 £8
Coffee X 2 £5
Half bottle wine £15