Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Harry’s Shack in Portstewart
Harry’s Shack. 118 Strand Road, Portstewart Tel: 028 7083 1783
Surfing champion Alan Mennie and his super cool fashion sector fiancée Sarah O'Neill have done for Portrush what Brigitte Bardot did for Saint Tropez in the 1950s. She was shooting And God Created Woman there in 1958 when she was papped while off-set. Within minutes St Tropez found itself at the heart of an international media storm which would result in its dominance for the next six decades as the seaside town of choice for the jet set.
Mennie and O'Neill have similar charisma to Bardot but are far too laidback and relaxed about stardom, otherwise the "port" would by now be swarming with wannabe surf champs, fashion icons and paparazzi. Also, the weather may have something to do with it.
Down the coast in dozy Portstewart, however, chef Derek Creagh has struck the anvil of success with such unexpected force that things look likely to change. Creagh has created a little restaurant so cool and compelling that it is only a matter of time before Bardot, Mennie and O'Neill (and half of Knightsbridge, Chelsea and South Ken) start building dream homes overlooking the dunes. We're talking new Malibu here.
Harry's Shack may sound like a taxi driver's lost-and-found but it is the future. Yes, of course these shacks have been around since the French sailed up the St Lawrence 500 years ago. And there's nothing on the menu to send your ageing parents screaming for the exit.
The magic of these beach shack bistros is in the retelling. It's about interpretation of a good idea. Good shacks like this one have a cool, post-Fifties North American surfer vibe, a laidback holiday mood (no matter what time of the year it is) generated by servers recruited straight from the pages of Sports Illustrated. And the food is big and seductive. No wee portions here.
Harry's is a beach house having formerly lived life as a National Trust information centre just at the entrance of Portstewart Strand. The sand sprinkles from your shoes beneath the table to create that full-on beach experience as you read the menu and realise the place does not have a licence and that cold beer will have to be sourced elsewhere.
Fear not, Divine Wines is a two minute drive away. This is a surprise off-licence with excellent choice (and fridgefuls of surfers' favourites).
The menu is a walk on the calm side with starters including chicken salad (pulled chicken leg, cos lettuce, soft boiled hen egg, crispy shallot and buttermilk dressing), North Coast mackerel fishcakes (with garden beetroot salad and beetroot ketchup), chicken and ham terrine (with baby turnip and celery remoulade and sourdough bread)), chicken liver parfait, potato and leek soup or walled garden harvest, consisting of pickled vegetables, St Tola's goat's cheese and mustard dressing.
Because beachcombers and surfers are very civilised and rarely wake up before the tide's right or it's past noon, brunch is served on a Sunday until 4pm (bacon and egg brioche wrap, pancakes, bacon and honey, ham and apple chutney sambo and the one I meant to try, North Coast Smokehouse hot smoked salmon with sourdough and scrambled egg.
The salmon is exceptional, especially considering this is a newcomer from nearby Ballycastle. I tried a small piece a few weeks ago and would dare to put it up beside Walter Ewing's.
Main courses have a distinct hand of Derek Creagh over them: half roast wild mallard with smoked bacon mash, braised cabbage and blackberry jus, Guinness and treacle braised feather blade beef, or Greencastle hake with chorizo, chickpea and tomato stew and cous cous.
I had the latter which had all the resonance of a north African souk. The hot flavours and musky scents, breathy tones and tanginess and that flakey, glistening white hake completed the new but old seaside scene magically.
Four of us loved it. The Dexter burger reinstated my faith in the hot sandwich as a pillar of pleasure and the whole plaice with the capers, shrimps, caulifower, brown butter and lemon was as good as a Breton fete.
Harry's Shack is shifting the centre of gravity on the North Coast and Portstewart now finds itself with a destination restaurant. If you're tired of queuing at the Ramore in Portrush, try joining the line here instead.
Fish & Chips £11
Apple crumble £5
Sticky toffee pudding £5