For all that famous posturing and machismo in the kitchens, successful restaurants are remarkably bi-sexual.
They are attractive to men and women in equal measures. Canny restaurant designers have learned over the years to come up with sexy interiors that are pleasing to everybody — gay, straight or whatever — to keep the numbers up.
Successful store restaurants tend to be more feminine. The elegant department store Fenwick, in New Bond Street, has one of the best such restaurants in London and it is all-white leather and chandeliers and a good bit camp.
For a flavour of this kind of femininity in the old country (and I find these places irresistible), you will have to go to Comber and, more precisely, the exclusive fashion store known as The Lightning Tree.
The brainchild of local designer Winnie Magee, the store on High Street now occupies three adjacent buildings whose collective histories are actually very masculine. One of the houses, for instance, was formerly The Paragon Bar, which also performed (as many pubs in the late 19th century did) as grocer, druggist, hardware, seed and general merchants, and undertaker (oak and deal coffins supplied).
While Winnie is not at all like this and the femininity and charm of the Lightning Tree clearly comes from her taste, she is very practical and good with hammers, drills and knocking down walls. She has knocked through the three buildings herself and created a single walk-through space that has light and air. As the inventor of the posh Linen Rain Collection — her clever treatment of the linen renders it waterproof, making it the must-have coat of the horsey set throughout Britain and Ireland — she knows a thing or two about how things work. And this includes food. Winnie has opened a tea room at the back of the extensive and attractive store. It has proper chefs, including Jennifer Sherwood, formerly of the Georgian House, and Vikki Skates.
Sherwood provides a simple choice of lunch options made from the freshest possible ingredients. Today in the nouveau rustique, high-ceilinged and white walled little restaurant, soup of the day is celery and lovage served with wheaten bread. The creamy soup’s flavours are extraordinarily robust, with the sweet tanginess of the lovage blending lovingly with the salty and tart celery.
As feminine as the shop itself, the soup comes in a cup-sized bowl and the wheaten is cut into thick but elegantly small slices. The butter also comes in polite little cubes. Yet there’s plenty of everything and a country man would not be disappointed.
Tart of the day is salmon and asparagus quiche with salad (and another slice of the wheaten). I see a perfectly cut slice of quiche and think the femininity is going to leave me hungry. Yet the very fresh quiche is not only beautifully light and fresh (the egg filling is weightless, like an omelette) but also satisfying. There are generous bits of salmon and asparagus and the salad is no afterthought. Rather, it’s an exciting little side
show with radishes, red onion, tomatoes and various lettuce leaves. The dressing is rich and fabulous.
By now, I am completely in touch with my feminine side and order coffee and rhubarb pie. This is possibly the finest rhubarb pie ever made. Prepared like a proper French tarte aux fruits, the inch-long little rhubarb logs are evenly distributed along the top of a quilt of custard. Keeping it all in place is a shortbread crust that fractures and cracks under the fork. It is perfect. Rhubarb and custard are one of the great wonders of the world. When presented like this in a tart it becomes the food of angels.
The Lightning Tree attracts people from far away who come to Comber specifically to buy the clothes. Winnie says she was always recommending visitors where to go for their lunch.
This prompted the creation of the tea room, which opens six days a week from 10 to 5. The thing is, Jennifer Sherwood is a classy chef and what is on offer here is distinctly worth the journey for lunch alone (or breakfast or afternoon tea).
The menu is modest: open sandwiches with smoked salmon and herbed cream cheese or smoked chicken tarragon and grape; salads like Parma ham, mozzarella, tomato and rocket; homemade smoked mackerel pate with toast or home-baked sausage roll with salad; but it is all charming and seductive.
The traybakes and cupcakes by Vikki are the absolute tops, while Jennifer’s scones and crepes now have a reputation of their own.
If you don’t have £300 to spend on a Winnie Magee linen raincoat, you will easily console yourself in the tea room. I’ll be back to have another look at the men’s collection (which I will then ignore and go for the coffee and pancakes instead).
Soup & wheaten £3.50
Rhubarb tart £2
17 High Street, Comber, Co Down
BT23 5HJ. Tel: 028 9187 1778