Restaurant review: Percy French Inn, Newcastle
Downs Road, Newcastle, Co Down Tel: 028 4372 3175
The summer season may be over, but the quality dishes at this Newcastle eatery proves that a visit to the seaside can be great fun all year round.
Say what you like about the Ulster climate and summer weather, but Newcastle doesn't seem to care two figs. Which is remarkable considering it's a seaside town with a golf course and access to the great outdoors. You'd have thought weather was key to the town's fortunes.
Apparently not. Judging by the number of restaurants and cafes in the town, Newcastle has had no problem weather in recent months, attracting thousands of visitors and, consequently, diners.
Brunel's has been receiving plaudits, Vanilla is consistently good and Linenhill Street Kitchen, which opened in time for the Irish Open earlier this summer has a reputation for quality, too. So what could possibly be attracting visitors despite the weather?
Answer: the joke shop on the promenade and the Percy French restaurant. I was in Newcastle earlier this week and these were the two places I wanted to visit.
Nothing says seaside more than a whoopee cushion (£1.29 and that's not what we call them in our house) and the Percy French is as much a part of Newcastle as the pebbles on that beach.
The shop operates on reduced hours now that the season is over, but for James Toal, the general manager of the Percy French, there's no such thing as a slow-down.
Perched at the gates of the Slieve Donard Hotel, the cottage-like Percy French is actually an extensive lodge, which houses a bright and airy bar and restaurant with a picture window overlooking the beach below.
A view is a big help to a restaurant, but competition in the town means the Percy French can't rely on this alone.
James is the first to acknowledge this: "September is like a light switch and everything changes down a gear. This and the restaurants in Newcastle means the Percy French is trying harder than ever."
If the food is anything to go by, James is winning. It may be an expensive restaurant, but the quality of the offer is a step change from what it once was.
The Hastings Group has embraced the notion of local produce with evangelic vigour. The restaurant menus in all their hotels clearly identify origin of meat, fish, produce and make a huge deal of naming suppliers. This is a great thing for visitors and for locals it provides a kind of culinary University Challenge.
For instance, if the prawn cocktail is described in the menu as being made with Portavogie prawns, can you actually tell? (Answer: yes, they're very much bigger and, if well-cooked, more tender than your usual cocktail prawns and shrimp.)
The prawn cocktail in the Percy French may not be made with Portavogie prawns, but whatever they were, they were excellent, cooked to retain form and springy texture and accompanied by a US-style Thousand Island sauce. Plenty of lemon and lettuce and some decent wheaten constituted a lunch in itself.
The menu here is vast and features chowder, north coast crab cakes, mussels, Glenarm smoked salmon and more. There are five kinds of steak - all from Hannan's and Carnbrooke. And there are seemingly dozens of other Asian-style and vegetarian offers.
The sausages and champ dish is made with Carnbrooke pork, black pudding and apple. This comes with three colossal onion rings and plenty of cider and raisin gravy.
The gravy is a bit sweet, but nothing wrong with the bangers and champ showing great evidence of scallions and butter.
Among the buttered chicken curry, scampi, Irish lamb and stir fries is a superfood salad. There is every imaginable health giving plant on this: quinoa, red cabbage, beetroot, edamame beans, roasted root veg, chestnut mushrooms, black olives, baby cress, toasted sesame seeds and feta cheese.
To add even more saintliness to it, there is Broighter Gold rapeseed oil and Burren balsamic bramley apple vinegar. Two plates of that and you get into heaven. The biggest surprise is the creme brulee, which is all the more outstanding for the apple compote lurking beneath. This has perfect consistency and is a proper treat.
Percy French has upped its game enormously. It is traditional and conventional, but there is a new found sense of quality and care about the place.
You can eat more cheaply elsewhere, but James told me there will be deals of £30 for two people. I may be back sooner than I thought, come rain or shine.
Prawn cocktail: £8.00
Sausages and champ: £12.00
Crème brulee: £5.00
Sparkling water: £1.90