Restaurant review: The Harbour Inn in Annalong
If you love seafood then this Co Down restaurant at the water's edge is the place to go, and the breath-taking view is a bonus
Restaurants either have greatness thrust upon them or are not great at all. A good example of one which was the latter and is now the former is the Harbour Inn in Annalong. For too long, the Harbour Inn may have traded heavily on its position overlooking the impossibly beautiful and tiny harbour and the views beyond to the Irish Sea. Whatever the weather, this view is one of the best and most dramatic from any restaurant in Ireland.
But I'm always wary of this because it's too easy to be distracted by the beauty outside from what's on the plate inside, in front of you. And while the Harbour Inn was never a bad restaurant, it wasn't a great one either. Until now.
Thanks to the arrival of racing-snake-thin head chef Trevor Orr, the Harbour Inn restaurant is possibly the best on the Down coast, certainly on a par with Brunel's in nearby Newcastle, and definitely head and shoulders above everywhere else in the region.
Chef Orr has understood the charm of the Harbour Inn and its maritime character and that understanding has translated into a menu which is exactly what you would hope to find in a place by the harbour called the Harbour Inn. There is a shed load of seafood and fish. Orr says every evening he receives knocks on the kitchen door where he is offered lobster, crabs, fish and anything else from the sea still alive and kicking and literally landed seconds earlier.
As Robbie Millar of Shanks always said, don't bother with any shellfish unless you know for a fact it was still in the sea up until an hour ago. Trevor Orr can't avoid this as his front door is 3.5 metres from the harbour quay.
Better still, he knows what to do with it. Three of us (two men have joined me, one from Loughgall, the other from Kilkeel and both are experts on the subject of fish) shared a series of fishy delights including smoked mackerel, langoustines in different ways, lobster and orzo, pollock and crab spring rolls, Thai squash soup with lobster bits, prawns and mussels. There were no weaknesses anywhere.
The ignition key was that Thai soup was an extraordinary, warming, soothing spicy cream topped with milk foam and lurking within were generous pieces of tender lobster. Beside this was a tempura langoustine on a bed of warm dulse, scallion and pepper salad. While the connection between the two might be tenuous, we didn't care in the slightest. Both were outstanding and uplifting. They also raised the bar very high and there was a moment when we thought the quality might not be sustainable for the following courses.
But shame on us because, what followed was as exquisite as it was exciting as it was reassuring.
Mussels marinieres with a few langoustine thrown in were as plump as hotel pillows. The juicy bright yellow bi-valves were the best quality I've seen in recent years and Orr's light jus was beautifully judged.
As was the creamy orzo fricassee he served up with a lobster tail. Just in case this wasn't enough glamour he added some crispy greens and prawns and a decent hit of parmesan amplified the flavours.
The pollock, one of my top rated fish, was landed earlier for Orr to poach. This was a highlight. The flavours of fresh pollock are the classic, memory-igniting experiences of youth and I was immediately transported to my granny's house where she did something very similar with it.
Although she would have tut-tutted at the sight of the accompanying Kilkeel crab rolls and the candied celeriac. This dark creamy mash was almost like a posh peanut butter according to fisherman Davey Hill across the table from me.
Desserts of cheesecake and apple crumble are top class and no after-thought.
Glasses of chardonnay failed to cut the mustard but that's because they were actually pinot grigio, according to the bill which I checked later.
Apart from this, service in this place matches the quality of the food. The downstairs bar is a big but modest affair and the dining room upstairs is only slightly more upmarket.
But you're not here for the interior. It's warm and bright, there are no draughts and the food is excellent. Leave your poshness at home and relax. This is a seafood place which will knock your socks off.
Three course lunch x 3: £67.50
Glasses wine x 4: £20.20
Pint Guinness x 2: £7.20
The Harbour Inn 6 Harbour Drive, Annalong. Tel: 028 4376 8678