Restaurant review: Still Waters Cove in Donaghadee
27 The Parade, Donaghadee. Tel: 028 9188 4217
Back to lovely Donaghadee for Mother's Day and a new restaurant. The two spine-chilling mentions in that opening sentence strike eye-swivelling fear into restaurateurs everywhere.
'Mother's Day' and 'new restaurant' are the alpha and omega of the hospitality industry, the galloping horses of the apocalypse, the mark of the beast.
For Still Waters Cove, whose paint is barely dry, an invasion of mothers, half of whom are glad to be out of the house, the other half sniffy about where they've been brought, the challenge is just another storm to survive. They're beyond fear, these ones.
That's because this restaurant is owned by one of Northern Ireland's oldest fishing and fish distribution companies. Still Waters Fishing has been based in Portavogie since 1942. They know how to deal with mechanical problems, heavy seas, mythical kracken monsters of the deep and all the life-threatening hazards fishing folk shrug off every day.
The business is still in the same family, but today's owners, Alan and his wife Tracy, have transferred some of their fishing skills onshore. For them, Mother's Day is just another storm. And they're ready for it.
Alan and Tracy had the good sense to establish their first fish and seafood restaurant a little further up the coast from Portavogie in Donaghadee, where there's a bit more craic, a nice harbour and a lot less bleakness (stand by for onslaught from offended Portavogie locals).
There are also a couple of very good existing neighbouring restaurants, including Pier 36 and its sister operation, Harbour Company. Both of these, incidentally, are listed among Still Waters' clients, so they must feel the addition is welcome.
Until a few months ago, the harbour-facing location was occupied by Governor's Rock, owned by the talented Jason Moore.
Alan and Tracy had some very good ideas about how the place should look and feel. Enough shiny white tiles to give you that fish market vibe, very comfortable booths for four or six and a team of capable young servers all make for a good environment.
Thankfully, the draughts which once haunted this place have gone and it is toasty warm.
There are special menus for the day, featuring classics and failproof dishes like roasted sirloin of Irish beef with Yorkshire pudding, roasties, etc. roast salmon steak, baked chicken breast dinner and so on.
But over the page are langoustines, stone bass, chowder and mussels. There are a few other attractions like fish pie, fish and chips and fillet steak.
A seafood chowder arrives plain, bare and without any dill, parsley, or greeny bits. It's just a pot, a tiny cauldron (or chaudron in French, from which the word chowder comes), with a lid, filled to the brim with chunks of fresh white fish and salmon, some natural smoked haddock and a couple of small cubes of new potatoes. It is excellent, generous and telling for its simplicity.
The prawn cocktails are distinctly Portavogie. The advisor says she can tell the difference between these and any other langoustine.
A short argument ensues about Dublin Bay prawns, those caught in Strangford Lough creels and those landed at Portavogie and Kilkeel.
Stone bass follows with fennel cream sauce, pork and prawn croquettes and heritage roast carrots. Your stone bass is as different to the sea bass as I am to a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
Americans call it the Atlantic wreckfish. It's an ugly big thing which lives among rocks (and wrecks), whereas sea bass is usually a farmed version of a polite distant cousin, whose biggest attraction is its firm blandness.
People rave about sea bass, but I can take it or leave it. Stone bass, however, is characterful and the meat is big and flakey.
Still Waters Cove has done this fillet of stone bass proud: crispy skin, good consistency and pearly white flakes peeling off each other at the slightest prod.
The magnificent langoustines and crab claws in chilli butter are overcooked, mushed wet cotton, but a lot better the second time around.
The Still Waters reputation for fine fish and seafood needs someone in the kitchen who can match the quality of the cooking to the product, which is outstanding. This is the only flaw.
Incidentally, the second time they came out minus the crab claws, which were dry from over cooking (but equally impressive in size), the langoustines were accompanied by a few dozen lightly tempura'd garlic prawns, which were seriously brilliant.
I love the restaurant and the fish. They dealt with the complaint superbly - always the sign of a quality operation - and took the langoustines off the bill.
My advice is to put on more choice of fish and seafoods to become the fruit de mer restaurant of repute Alan says he wants it to be.
But I sense he and Tracy are playing it safe right now, with the less-risky chicken and beef dinners, the classic steaks and beef-burgers.
Hopefully, their confidence will grow and they will put more fish on as they get to know their audience better.
Prawn cocktail (x2) £13.90
Fish and chips £11.00
Desserts (x3) 12.75
Espressos (x3) £4.50
Carafe sauvignon blanc £15.00
Diet Coke £2.00
Corona (x2) £7.00
Glass prosecco £7.00
San Pellegrino (large) £4.50