The Boat House in Bangor is landlocked. The sturdy little stone building is the central feature of a large car park which stretches across reclaimed land where there was once a busy commercial harbour. But it’s been a good few decades since any boat left this little shelter.
Planners in the 1950s must have thought it was a beezer idea to create car parking spaces by filling in a large part of the town’s defining seafront.
Which means that the charming little former harbourmaster’s office no longer enjoys the gentle lapping of the tide at its walls.
But for all that, it is not washed up. It retains its history and the references are all in place including the outside staircase and the original boat repair and storage area in the basement which is where the dining room is. It is also very cosy and comfortable although the kitchen must be one of the smallest chef Jonny Holywood has ever had to work in.
Chef Holywood has plenty of form. His Yugo days have given him a firm grasp of what sells to a younger, hipper and more adventurous crowd. This is the same man who ran a sausage roll pop-up in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter called Roller Boy. If you can make the perfect sausage roll, and he can, then anything you do will be viewed favourably.
And so it is in the Boathouse and its intimate basement dining room. The Boathouse has been through a number of iterations in the last 15 years. From the brilliant Castell brothers Jasper and Jory who appeared out of nowhere and immediately made a name for themselves as quality restaurateurs through the Salty Dog years and now to Chef Holywood, the restaurant never lost its lustre despite the change of hands.
Two of us booked a late lunch at 2.30pm, just as two other tables were departing. It’s a good thing the dining room is so intimate and inviting and the staff as engaging because there’s nothing sadder than being on your tod in an empty restaurant. Serves us right for booking the odd time.
The Boathouse has entered tasting menu territory (£70) but the simpler and conventional lunch menu looks too good to avoid. There are three starters, mains and desserts (plus a cheese board) to make life easy. Easier said than chosen though as all three starters of crab, pigeon and beetroot look too good. So we order all three. The citrus Bangor Bay crab is an impressive composition of apple, squid ink emulsion, pickled kohlrabi and herb “snow”. Its delicate, pretty and poetic composition belies the robustness of flavours and textures. The squid ink augments the deep pleasures of the crab meat while the pickled kohlrabi and apple provide zingy top notes. Craigantlet pigeon with pearl barley risotto, carrot and parmesan is another little wire act where flavours meet to enhance the earthy, gamey pigeon, tender, deep red and iron-like on the tongue. The opaque beetroot tartare allows the light to shine through it underlining its clear and refreshing taste. Served with artichoke crisps, truffle emulsion and foam this too could become easily unbalanced but the dish is perfect.
Monkfish with curried cauliflower and spiced lentil dahl produces a fitting amount of heat and Indian warmth. The monkfish, notoriously fickle in the pan, is beautifully firm and moist with no sign of overcooked dryness. A filet of halibut with salsify and dark purple broccoli comes with a little garnish of seaweed and sage.
Lunch is so civilised in here. It is refined and polite yet quietly engaging and seductive. Despite the empty dining room the advisor and I are eating slowly to make things last. It’s that good.
Do not be surprised if Jonny Holywood makes an appearance on the Great British Menu. When someone cooks as well as he does, he deserves everybody’s attention.