Restaurant review: Orange Tree House
1 Portaferry Road, Greyabbey, Co Down. Tel: 028 4278 8103
Wedding receptions in Northern Ireland are occasions usually associated with mediocre food. Too many hotels apply the tightest budgetary restrictions to their wedding lunch - or dinner - packages and even if you're a wealthy, generous bride's parent willing to pay big bucks for the best, you'll have to travel a long way before you're served a memorable meal.
And it was in this frame of mind that the adviser and I attended the wedding party of very close friends, moving from the multi-denominational church at Belfast's Methodist College to Greyabbey's Orange Tree House for the reception. No, I had never heard of it either.
If, like me, you tend to get very protective of your country when faced with foreign visitors (don't be fighting in front of the guests), you'll understand that a family of very classy Argentinians provides a challenge.
After all, Argentina is one of the most diverse, beautiful and cultured nations on the planet. Methody was one thing, but would Orange Tree House and, more critically, the weather, do us justice?
As you wind through Greyabbey heading south towards Portaferry, you realise how lovely a little village it is; crammed with antique shops, tea houses and a decent restaurant. And, as you turn that last sharp left-hander and are about to drop into third gear, that's when you've arrived at wedding heaven.
On the right, through some large black gates, lies Orange Tree House. A gravelled forecourt leads to a converted early-19th century barn church with parking to the side. There are ushers and servers about the place to guide you in.
At the front of the former church is an old, but highly polished aluminium Airstream caravan converted into a bar and behind it is a little ramp up to a platform area which has tables, bench seating and a seat-high wall beyond which lie the vast expanses of the northern shores of Strangford Lough, Whiterock Bay and the Mournes. On a good day, this is an exquisite sight.
The silvery light of Strangford is intense even in winter. And when the tide is out, hundreds of waders, oyster catchers, arctic terns and other birds pick at the sandy surface for things to eat. A bit like the guests being handed canapes and drinks on this side of the wall, there is much important get-to-know-the-other-guests small talk.
When eventually we have made our acquaintances and go inside for lunch, we are greeted by a graceful interior of pared-back, bare stone and brick, flagstone floors and open rafters up to the slated roof above. It's beautiful. Today, there are 50 of us, but Orange Tree House can take up to 120.
The moment of truth, the first bite of the starter, is reassuringly sound. A Fivemiletown goats' cheese tartlet, dressed with red onion marmalade and balsamic syrup, is safe, but beautifully executed. A short crust pastry crumbles to mix with great satisfaction in the mouth with the moist marmalade and dry cheese.
There are decent wines on the table: chilled Rose d'Anjou, white from Gascony and a powerful Argentinian malbec (naturally) is plenty for 10, as half the table is driving later.
A daube of beef, cooked for five hours, comes with an olive mash and red wine jus. This is excellent, but not entirely without its flaws. The beef flakes apart at the slightest prod of the fork and the olive mash is warm and buttery. But not everyone's beef is perfect.
One or two have suffered the heating process and show bullet-like centres. This is just a detail, however, and feedback from the Argentine is hugely positive.
Desserts feature, but everyone really wants that cake. This will come later. And, so, the sequence of wedding day events proceeds at a gentle pace. The room is vacated to allow the DJs to set up. Drinks are taken outside as the sun starts to set and all is well.
Later, after the Argentines have claimed victory on the dancefloor with their world-beating, show-off tango skills, chicken goujons and chips turn up and the cake slices.
It's been a day of good food and drink and I'm reminded just how central these are to every occasion - romantic, commemorative, solemn, or celebratory. Thank you, Kerry and Pablo.
Three courses £42.50
Evening goujons and chips £4.50
Bottle wine (starting price) £15.00
Total (excl wine) £47.00