Restaurant review: we take a bite out of The Wheathill
7 Grays Hill, Bangor BT20 3BB. Tel: 028 9147 7405
Out-of-town restaurants are giving the best in Belfast a run for their money. Until recently, if you wanted to eat well, you stayed firmly in the Bay Area, as many of us have come to call the new Belfast.
This is a triangle whose three corners are marked out by Newtownabbey to the north, Lisburn to the west and Comber to the east.
You might venture to Ian Brown's places in Londonderry, to the Boat House in Bangor and possibly as far as Fermanagh to taste Noel McMeel's creations in the Lough Erne Resort, but, by and large, it used to be a risky business to set a course beyond the King's Head.
Now there are all sorts of quality restaurants out in the country. Most recently, Chris McGowan put the 'Oi!' back in Moira with his new operation, Wine & Brine. This is so good, even people in Moira are saying it won't be long before he moves to Belfast. Oh, the irony. Stay where you are, Chris.
At almost the exact same time Chris and his partner Davina opened Wine & Brine, so Cameron and Amee Carter lit the stove in their new restaurant, the Wheathill in Bangor. And in exactly the same way that Chris has won over hearts and minds, commuters and locals, so the Wheathill has quickly established a reputation for punching way above its weight.
Conceived by Amee as a relaxed and informal restaurant which does brunch, lunch and dinners, the look of the place is cool, modern-rustic, and is entirely draught-free. She designed the interior herself and while amateurs don't always get it right, in this case she nailed it.
Then there's the quality of the cooking. Cameron is an outstanding chef. He's not just good, he's very good. The things he does with a pork chop would have been considered witchcraft 50 years ago. But more on this later.
From the outset, the Wheathill gets it right. There is a busy team whose antennae are permanently switched to high alert. This means as soon as you come in through the door, someone is there to bring you in.
That immediate stamp of hospitality is crucial for a restaurant. Just in the last two weeks I was surprised by how easy and basic a function as welcoming a guest in through the door is overlooked, or entirely abandoned, by some well-established places.
I stood at the door of a lunchtime restaurant in Stranmillis with two daughters last week for a full eight minutes before anyone came near us.
Once seated, that settling-in period is another critical stage in the restaurant experience. Offering drinks to a recently arrived guest is as instinctive and intuitive for Ulster people as switching on the light when you walk into a dark room.
Yet I've seen loads of places overlook this straightforward transaction and create a lose/lose situation with loss of drinks sales and return custom.
All of this is dealt with very well in Wheathill and your appetite is consequently whetted and you're wallet loosened. Not that you need worry too much about the expense. The wine list is particularly interesting, featuring whites and reds at top prices of £25 with plenty for much less.
Then there's that food. Five of us had as broad a variety as possible and could not find anything even bordering on disappointing. We shared two starters, including a puff pastry pizza with onion marmalade and goat's cheese curd, leaves and grapes, and squid and prawn linguine with chilli, garlic and lemon.
Both were a joyful entry to Sunday lunch, with plenty of flaking pastry, warm, soothing onion marmalade and dry curd. The linguine featured great piles of tender baby squid and prawns, with none of the usual heavy handedness with the garlic.
Around the table then came a pot of mussels in cider, a sirloin from Hannan's with green beans, smoked tomato puree and Madeira sauce, two lemon soles with spinach, brown shrimp, cucumber and dill and the king of them all: the pork chop.
Marinated in brine for 24 hours, water bathed like a baby then grilled, this turned out to be spectacularly brilliant. The salty, back-of-the-mouth pig flavours, the tenderness and the sheer volume of it was matched beautifully by a smoked bacon sauce, some kale and a milky white apple and celeriac puree. I could have eaten this all week.
Desserts are equal to the dishes before them and the most sinful of them is the chocolate bar with banana, peanut brittle and vanilla ice-cream.
Bangor always had a good little stable of restaurants. Now Wheathill has joined them, the town may be in position to reclaim its rightful place among the culinary heavyweights of Northern Ireland.
Puff pizza £6.00
Lemon sole x 2 £30.00
Pork chop £12.00
Chips x 2 £7.00
Rocket salad £3.50
Glass wine x 2 £10.00
Glass prosecco £4.50
Chocolate bar £7.00