Restaurant review: Brunel's Restaurant at The Anchor Bar
9 Bryansford Road, Newcastle, Co Down Tel: 028 4372 3951.
Leaving town to go to a restaurant in the provinces is either an expression of adventure or a penance. If you live in Belfast, or Derry/Londonderry, there's no need to travel far to eat because you've got the best on your doorstep.
But when your sense of adventure and desire to be among country folk is stronger than you, and the lure of the fields and coast becomes an irresistible pilgrimage, then there better be something worthwhile at the end of the journey.
Such was the mood last Sunday when the adviser and I picked up her mother and made a sprint to Newcastle.
There had been some talk about Brunel's, the restaurant above the Anchor Bar and head chef Paul Cunningham (not the Danish chef Paul Cunningham, by the way), and as this talk was reaching the capital city then it was time to see for ourselves.
We weren't disappointed. The bar might be full of punters, but you would never know as the separate door and staircase took you straight into carpeted calm, rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs and candle light. And loads of pictures of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's engineering feat. I'll make the connection between Newcastle and Brunel another time, but for now it remains something of a mystery.
What was even more of a mystery was how we might have overlooked this place for so long considering the excellence of just about everything which appeared on the table.
A simple and conventional Sunday lunch menu delivered far more than it promised. What can you expect of a one-page menu offering soup of the day, goat's cheese mousse, chowder, coley, or duck liver pate for starters? The mains didn't seem any more exciting: roast sirloin, chicken breast, coley and pork belly. Oh, and a rigatoni dish.
But very soon, the evidence was in front of us. The chowder was a delicate affair featuring plenty of soft, firm and not overcooked white fish (probably that coley?), fresh chopped scallions and a hint of chilli. Some tiny potato cubes were in there, too, but the overall chowder was light, slightly smoky and very tasty. The treacle bread and butter it came with was a good match.
The goat's cheese mousse was as good as Chris Fearon's in Deane's at Queen's and was bolstered by shards of aerated maple (very like yellow man) and crushed pecans, some frisee leaves and pumpkin jam.
It was wonderful, but if Uber-facts is right and good appetizers can make people enjoy the main course less, I was in trouble. Mother-in-law's tempura coley with pickled celeriac and broad bean salad and charred lemon dressing was well received.
I never liked coley. People I respected have often said they wouldn't give coley to a cat. But I had ordered it nonetheless as a main course, not wanting roast sirloin, or pork belly.
Coley always felt grey and gelatinous to me. But here came a block of coley. A beautifully finished fillet with crispy top and flaking, marble like flesh falling away into a bed of pea and smoked bacon risotto and some chocolate malt. It was sensationally good.
The flavours of coley when done the Cunningham way bring out all the smells and flavours of a fishing port, that tangy, salty brininess backed up with the subtle smoked bacon in the risotto was a perfect hit, the result of a well-considered and beautifully executed dish. I didn't want it to end.
The adviser's roast of sirloin beef was medium rare and the accompanying gravy had loads of deep beefy flavours which were calmed by a buttery mash of great quality.
The pork belly and cabbage passed the high fuss test (my mother in law is a fabulous cook). Desserts of bread and butter pudding made with Bailey's and apple crumble were up to the same quality standards.
Brunel's is a destination restaurant. It's worth the trip.
Three-course Sunday lunch (x2) £37.90
Two-course Sunday lunch £15.95
Sparkling water £3.95
Glass Primitivo (x2) £9.90