Northern Ireland suffers from a collective lack of confidence. The term “our wee country” is a symptom of this and should be outlawed immediately.
It is based on the insulting assumption that while we are a plucky little backwater, we don’t actually hold out much hope of achieving anything significant.
Yet we have an educated and enlightened population with big ideas. Look at the schools, colleges and universities we have, the vibrant arts scene in the Lyric, the MAC and the Ulster Hall, not to mention the brilliant sportsmen and women, scientists, manufacturers and business heads.
There is still a vociferous section of society which prefers to ignore high aspiration and achievement and instead dwells on three common denominators we can rely on to create anxiety — political tribalism, civil servants and “our wee country”.
This is good enough reason for clearing our desks and letting others in to run the place for a year or two.
One area of Northern Ireland life which has benefited from foreign intervention over the last thirty years is the restaurant sector. A thin culinary tradition (Irish stew, Ulster Fry, champ) made way for Indian, Chinese, Italian and French restaurants until eventually our own homegrown chefs began to emerge.
Now that the north has a good reputation for such restaurants, a new thing is happening — foreign chefs using their back catalogue of international ideas to produce great meals using Ulster produce.
Take Dutchman Joery Castel in Bangor’s Boat House. He and his brother Jasper started the place a couple of years ago and it has been so brilliantly consistent it merits a Michelin star.
To mark July 12 and another famous Dutchman in our own way, the advisor and I went to dinner in the Boat House with a pair of ravenous hedonists.
What Joery does in his tiny kitchen with just-caught Belfast Lough lobster, samphire collected from the rocks of Strangford’s shore, beetroot from Co Down and all the rest, is magnificent, occasionally magical, and always delicious.
A busy Saturday night in the intimate downstairs dining room reveals a level of quality and simplicity, innovation and invention which frankly, at these prices, leaves everyone else playing catch-up.
But there is no sense of pretension or formality here. This is fine dining with your tie off. Any airs and graces are left at the foot of the stone steps leading up to the little front door. And there are choices. The canny Castels understand thrift and budget. You can choose from the three-course menu for £25 to a seven-course lobster tasting menu for just £50. In between is the a la carte menu, whose prices are equally reasonable.
The set menu was ordered by one at the table and it was no less glamorous or desirable than the a la carte. A gravadlax starter served Japanese-style was declared as “exciting” and, despite its generous size, “too short-lived for something so heavenly”. The advisor’s starter of crab in XO sauce (Chinese seafood dressing made with extra-old brandy) was from the a la carte menu and she felt it was one of those dishes with textures and aftertastes which would live on in her memory as one of the more sinful moments in her life.
The lobster and turbot main course, also from the a la carte, was equally hedonistic. Beautifully cooked white turbot fillet, pressed down by a large half lobster tail lying on the bed of much-anticipated buttery samphire, was out of this world; shiny and bright, it echoed the miraculous cooking of Alain Ducasse, in which the most modest food item, the scallion, for instance, becomes a priceless moment of intense flavours and scents.
Everyone agreed that the turbot and lobster dish with its sesame seed paste and tiny little beetroot meringues, stationed beside centimetre cubes of the dark red root, was a marvel. We wished we could just eat it over and over again.
The brill on the set menu was no less impressive, by the way. Large, delicately cooked and composed, it was another textbook piece of faultless timing. A side order of chips, and another of the irresistible samphire, completed the main course with further enhancements of flavours and marine saltiness.
Joery Castel is not an egomaniac. If he had a bit more egotism he’d have his own daytime TV show showing us all how to be proper Ulster folk by learning how to bake, roast, toast, boil and braise the stuff which grows or is caught on our doorstep.
The Boat House is currently among the top three best restaurants in Northern Ireland. It shows you that when Holland and Ulster meet, as they did all those years ago in the Boyne Valley, it doesn’t always end in deadlock.
Cocktails x 4 £24
Vodka and Fevertree tonic £5.25
3-course menu £25
Crab starter x 3 £24
Turbot & lobster x 3 £64.50
Cheese x 2 £17
Glass port £4.50
Dessert wine x 2 glasses £16
Picpoul bottle x 2 £44
1a Seacliff Road, Bangor,
County Down BT20 5HA
Tel: 028 9146 9253