Belfast Telegraph

When the starter is the climax of the whole dining out experience

A combination of brilliant food, excellent staff and pleasant atmosphere in the restaurant formerly known as Shanks result in a wonderfully satisfying experience

Set menu x 2: £39.90

Gin and tonic x 2 £12

Campillo Crainza Rioja £25

Coffee x 2 £5



Total: £81.90

Thyme

Blackwood Golf Club, 150 Crawfordsburn Road, Bangor

Tel: 9185 3394

You know that scene in When Harry Met Sally? (If you've seen the film, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, use your imagination. Hint: Meg Ryan's character, Sally, is faking what can only be politely described as a Herbal Essences moment).

Well, I stepped into Sally's shoes when I embarked on my starter at Thyme. " How is it?" asked my friend, a little disconcerted by my sudden silence. " Nnnngggg ..... eeeeuuuuuu....... aaahhhhhhh .......... gggghhh," I managed to gurgle in low, gutteral tones, like some sort of feral animal in heat. "It's .... aaaaahhhhh ..... mayyyyyy ........ zeeeeeen". My muscles went limp, I felt giddy — oh my God, were my eyes rolling in my head?

So I exaggerate, but it was seriously a while before I could talk. When I did it was to say: "Claire, it's bloody organic [or something like that]!"

Once she got over the giggles, Claire had to agree. There wasn't a lot on my plate — one modestly sized pasta parcel stuffed with minced seafood, swimming in bisque — and I wasn't too keen on giving any away, but I cut her a corner. Her pupils dilated. "I see what you mean," she drawled huskily with a wild look in her eye. "The pasta's paper thin and so light; the sauce has depth, but isn't rich. It's melt-in-the-mouth tender. Like a cross between ravioli and steamed Chinese dumplings." Quite.

Her own butternut squash soup also hit the spot (if not quite the G spot ...) Like my starter, it was just enough to arouse the taste-buds, but not dent the appetite. The waiter then talked us through the mains, including a vegetarian choice not on the menu. Claire was really getting in touch with her inner animal, and ordered her rib of beef just-pink, while I plumped for the veggie platter of sauteed potatoes, sundried cherry tomatoes, green beans, leaves and chilli oil.

Claire's beef arrived succulent and served with a delicate horseradish cream, some champ, herbed roast potatoes, and enough crisp veg (green beans, peas and carrots) to feed a family of four.

My main fell a hair short of expectations — a few exotic mushrooms, or even some shavings of Parmesan would have finished it off nicely, and provided some protein — but it was still very enjoyable, particularly the way the warm oil, flecked with chopped chilli and herbs, bound everything together and wilted the salad leaves.

The waiter suggested a break between mains and dessert — no doubt he's used to dealing with excitable women — which allows me to mention drinks. We started off with a gin and tonic each, and they were divine. Don't ask me what the gin was, but it certainly wasn't Gordon's.

In contrast to the bijou food menu — just four choices for each course — the wine list was epic, with seemingly all major regions and varieties namechecked. It wasn't cheap, though — the lowest price-tag I could see was £22.

For pudding, Claire ordered the poached fruit salad — which turned out to be on a different level entirely from what we know as 'fruit salad'. Her small pieces of tropical fruit were delicately cooked so they no longer resembled something you should eat five times a day but something magical, exotic, transformed. This was cooking as an artform.

My steamed ginger pudding was also a triumph of alchemy. I often find steamed puddings call to mind a dishcloth, but this was light, flavoursome, note-perfect in texture. A dab of chantilly cream provided just enough moisture.

The waiter — who couldn't have been more attentive and pleasant — kept replenishing our (very good) post-prandial coffees and seemed eager we enjoy every second of our visit. Really, he was a masterclass in how to make customers feel welcome, pampered and valued.

And it wasn't anywhere near as expensive as you might expect. This restaurant was formerly the Michelin-starred Shanks, so I was prepared to max out the credit card. But the Sunday night set menu was a very affordable £19.95 for three courses.

It's not often I can't find serious fault with something, but I honestly thought Thyme was exemplary on all fronts. The dining room was lovely (some nice art on the walls), the food was only amazing, and the service 110%.

The last word? Lie back and think of England ...

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