Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Mann's Cafe
Mann's Cafe: The Old Court House, Antrim. Tel: 028 9446 3113
Quantum leaps, giant steps and vast improvements have been leapt, taken and made in Northern Ireland's food sector in the last 10 years. Belfast has shown the way forward by supporting dozens of new restaurants, many of them the direct result of young chefs moving on after receiving early career guidance and training at the hands of a core number of kitchen professionals.
One of these is the now god-like Paul Rankin, who opened Northern Ireland's first restaurant to secure a Michelin star. In a recent conversation, he indicated that the mid-range restaurant sector in Belfast has become well-established and has helped develop the city's reputation as a foodie destination. But he also has reservations about just how good we think we are.
Not enough long-term training for chefs, too many people working in the business without the right grounding and a lack of understanding of what fine dining actually involves, means that we are not aiming high. Which may explain why there are no Michelin-starred restaurants here, whereas at one stage 15 years ago, we had three.
But Rankin maintains that there are areas of excellence nonetheless. Much of this lies in the quality of the produce and those restaurants which know how to use them.
Which brings me to Mann's Cafe in Antrim's town centre. Housed in the old court house, bang in the middle of the charming market town, Mann's is an unassuming restaurant which could be mistaken at first sight for a coffee and tray-bakes place. But there's more.
Mann's tiny counter creaks under the weight of vast pies, lasagnes, stews and soups. An even smaller kitchen produces these absolute belters and the dining room is busy with shoppers and foreign visitors.
It used to be that foreign visitors going into the provinces would return in tears having been unable to find anything decent to eat. Not now and not in Antrim, which has upped its game significantly.
The town has developed into a very attractive example of small town Ulster living. Market Square is spruced up and clean as a whistle. Those Castle Gardens, sliced off from the town by the Dublin Road, but now more accessible than ever, have been transformed by the council into a park which now compares to Powerscourt in Co Wicklow. It's so beautiful that it is now home to what used to be the famous annual Hillsborough Garden Festival.
Mann's is also a key asset to the town in terms of tourism and it takes it role very seriously, judging by the food. Take, for instance, the sausage roll. You will not find anything as big as this anywhere in Ireland. The slice served up would indicate that, if it was taken from a proportionately scaled roll, that roll would be, by my calculation, at least a metre long.
But never mind the volume. The quality of the puff pastry, the lightness of the meat inside, perked up with secret ingredients, but in which there are elements of fresh vegetables, make it a winner, fulfilling and exceeding every expectation you have of a sausage roll: a little spicy, full savoury flavour and pastry that is beautifully flakey the whole way round.
Salads include a very classy Waldorf, full of crunch and moisture, a coleslaw as fresh as snow and other bowls filled with lush raw veggies. Everything is classic Ulster catering, but taken to its ultimate incarnation. If only all cafeterias did it this way.
Mann's is also about the tray bakes and cakes. A freshly baked lemon meringue sits like a huge golden crown on a top corner of the counter, fighting for space among the scones, tarts, pancakes and shortbreads. A slice of this would keep a family of four quiet for an hour.
The skills required to put this food out are those which Paul Rankin would approve of, I'm sure. There's a fast, but relaxed speed in the place; it's lunchtime and even if the visitors are on holiday, the rest of us haven't much time. They've got it just right.
Sausage roll and salad £4.95
Lemon meringue pie £3.95