Restaurant review: We take a bite out of The Loft
Shenanigans, 78 The Promenade, Portstewart. Tel: 028 7083 6000
One of the north's most talented chefs is also one of its most explosive. Chris Bell has been a bit of a bete noir showing brilliance and consistency in the oddest of places and then vanishing for a while.
He recently resurfaced on the north coast and is now heading up a new venture on the top floor of the very successful Shenanigans bar and club in Portstewart. Safely removed from the hoi polloi downstairs, the Loft is a sanctuary if not of absolute peace and quiet, then of some relative tranquillity.
The restaurant is a bling-tastic, glitzy affair with little booths for four and banquettes along both walls. Staff are willing and even after just three days on the job are showing all the attributes needed to support someone of the calibre of Bell.
I've always been keen on eating out in Portrush and Portstewart, because there is a culture of catering here thanks to the decades of hospitality students from the local college. This has translated into polished service. The Loft's front of house staff are naturally hospitable and are now adding a degree of slick professionalism to this.
But what of the food itself? Clearly, Chris Bell is a master with fish. The extensive and well-thought-out menu leaves you wanting all the dishes (there is a seven course taster for £40, which takes care of the indecision), but the halibut, turbot, scallops and salmon beckon irresistibly.
A starter of pigeon wellington served with celeriac cream, apple, cured pork and smoked hazelnuts is a knock-me-down moment of pleasure. Tightly packed into the little pastry pillow is the most tender and dark red meat, as soft as marshmallow and as gamey as an oak wood. It is a great piece of cooking using tip-top ingredients.
The adviser's confit of corn-fed duck comes with puy lentils, mushrooms, chorizo and sherry vinegar. We share a bit of it (she's not letting go of too much, mind). It has a hint of smokey woodiness and the flavours in the lentils and mushrooms are a match for the strong chorizo. A couple of thin slices of plum add a little sweet unexpected dimension to it.
By this stage we are regretting not booking a room across the street in the Anchorage Inn and I stiffen my resolve to stay the course with sparkling water. But when the food's this good, it doesn't really matter.
Roast turbot is served in Bourguignon style, more often associated with beef. There are mushrooms, smoked bacon, onion and red wine. Surely this will overwhelm even a robust turbot?
Far from it. The brick of turbot is deeply golden and crispy and beneath this veneer the meat is solid and firm, but chef has avoided it drying out, or becoming chewy.
The texture is almost meaty, yet all the delicate flavours of white fish are there. The accompanying show is a great frame for it. The advisor's halibut is a lighter affair accompanied by white beans, cockles, crab, tomato, garlic and parsley broth. It's more a sea breeze and salty air dish with the freshness and lightness of the parsley broth adding a verdant hue to what looks like a little rock pool beneath the glistening white filet of halibut.
The cheese board is unusually exciting, featuring reblochon and a fabulous blue Leggygowan. The valrhona and hazelnut tart is not a small indivudal affair, but a generous slice cut from a deep-pan pie whose chocolate filling is glossy, rich and creamy. It's the best I've had.
Shenanigans on Saturday night is a party pub, a club full of smiling young faces and craic. The Loft is the same only a bit more subdued so as not to frighten the slightly older crowd.
There are plans for the Loft to have its own entrance, but while you still come in through the doors of Shenanigans don't overlook the fact that Chris Bell cooks here, too.
Portstewart did well to get Harry's Shack. Now it's got the Loft the town looks set to becoming a foodie destination.
3-course dinner (x2) £59.90
Glass of wine (x2) £9.00
Sparkling water £3.95