Restaurant review: We take a bite from Oscar's Seafood Bar
43 Main Street, Castledawson. Tel: 028 7946 8767
Seafood is one of those culinary features which prompts obsessive and undying passion in some and revulsion in others. In the same way as you should drop any friends who don't like garlic, so the same rules should apply to seafood.
This obsession may explain why Madrid, 500 kilometres from the coast, is the seafood capital of Spain, or why Paris which is also far inland, consumes more oysters, crabs and lobsters than the rest of France. The same can now be said of landlocked Castledawson in south Derry with the very recent opening of Oscar's Seafood Bar.
Within four days of opening with nothing more than a bit of Facebook chatter, the place has been a hit. This is largely down to Roly Graham, the chef-patron who owns the well-established Church Street Restaurant in nearby Magherafelt. Roly, who has named the new venture after his son, has form and is a quality chef. He also has an eye for the market and understands what the locals will go for.
While the local hinterland is packed tight with wealthy commuters and land owners who will form the bulk of Roly's customers, Castledawson, just off the main A6 between Londonderry and Belfast, is also within easy reach of the city slickers. But more than that, Oscar's is a destination restaurant, making it worth your while to go out of your way.
The simple, modern, rustic interior behind the Main Street frontage is cosy and welcoming. As is often the case with chefs, there's a bit of mad design and the feature Roly is most proud of is the boat table. This consists of a rowing boat, filled with fishing gear, covered over with a sheet of plate glass, large enough to seat a party of 10. This table is in a room at the front of the restaurant, not completely disconnected from the rest of the place, but distant enough for raucous nights that won't upset the rest of the diners.
Despite the distance from the sea, Oscar's menu, which is full of the classic fruits of the sea that you'd expect to see, also reflects the "terroir", so smoked eel from Toome features large.
This is such a welcome sight. We are a bit squeamish about eel, yet it is a fantastic fish that is exported to Europe in vast quantities. Roly's smoked eel is generous in volume, creamy, soft and rich and well-matched by pickles and toasted bread from Ditty's bakery across the street.
There are other interesting starters: crispy monkfish tacos with salsa and chipotle mayo, salt and chilli Kilkeel squid, chowder and a big choice of shellfish dishes including curried crab cakes, mussels, prawn cocktail and a "shellfish stand for two".
My navigator today is Captain Rees, the former fisheries protection fleet skipper, whose love for fish is matched only by his dedication to the restoration of ancient ships, including our own HMS Caroline, of which he is the project director. He makes an interesting point about fish on the bone as his lemon sole arrives minus head or tail. He remarks that in Northern Ireland one rarely, if ever, sees the entire fish on the plate. Back to that squeamishness, Roly suggests.
But it does make a difference to the experience for those for whom these things matter. Having said that, the captain is very complimentary about the fish; it's fresh, it's pearly white flesh is perfect and while the accompanying garlic prawns are far from overpowering, they provide the gentle flavours of the sole with a little firepower.
The shellfish stand for two is too intriguing to go past, so I order it as a main course. It's a little, three-storey Noah's afternoon tea featuring two vast pacific oysters, two crab cakes, two scallops and two soda bread blinis with crab mayonnaise. For good measure is a fistful of mussels. All of it is delightful, although the old potato trick in the curried crab cakes is getting tiresome.
An excellent apple tart with apple crumble ice cream finishes off the evening, which has been remarkable for a place barely four days old.
What started out in Roly's head as a fish and chip shop has ended up a handsome and quality restaurant. Fish isn't the only thing on the menu, so meat-eating Castledawsonards will be content. And the prices are very reasonable.
Crab cakes £7
Lemon sole £18
Seafood platte r£18
Chips & truffle chips £6
Apple tart £4.50
Large sparkling water £3.50