When number one daughter (14) was asked recently if she’d like to live in the country she shuddered at the thought. After a short while she announced she’d consider Bangor.
To give you an idea of her knowledge of rural affairs, the same city girl had gone to the Balmoral Show last May with her mate from school and paid £7 in, thinking she was going to a rave.
Bangor is not the country, we explained to her, and in order to prove the point (and to avoid having to cook that evening), we headed off to the seaside town.
A nice woman called Angela from a restaurant called Fifty Two had been in touch earlier in the week and said I’d be nuts to ignore the place for much longer. A sucker for charm and determination, I suggested to the adviser we go there. The adviser nodded approval and we set our course accordingly.
I will now repeat what I have said a few times in these pages — Bangor in Co Down is the new Kinsale. It is a culinary capital with excellent restaurants, cheap but quality nosh, top-drawer, pukka fine dining and everything in between.
It’s brilliant to be able to bring visitors to Northern Ireland to a town like Bangor. Its initial chavvy vibe may be more kiss-me-quick Blackpool than fancy-pants Brixham, but if you dig a little deeper in Bangor you will find just a few short yards away from the Pickie Fun Pool and the winter-abandoned mini train track, a fabulous choice of at least five restaurants: Jeffers, Coyle’s Bistro, The Boathouse, Café Essence and, now, Fifty Two.
As the weather changes and the cold winds howl up the High Street from the harbour below, crossing the threshold of Fifty Two is to enter sanctuary. The big, low-ceilinged restaurant with its vast glass frontage is adorned with magnificent photographs of local scenes. The taupe-coloured walls and wooden floor, leather chairs and banquettes and the view into the kitchen are all immediately reassuring for first-timers.
The front-of-house person who greeted us as we entered the empty restaurant — it was just after 6pm on a Sunday evening, so not the busiest time of the week — made the place welcoming even though Norah Jones did her best to depress the life out of us on the stereo.
The Sunday evening menu is a variation of the offers available at cheaper prices on other days and times but still didn’t appear excessive. But it was the content that immediately set the scene. Starter choices were a broad sweep through the taste spectrum, including scallops with pickled beetroot and citrus fruit, root vegetable soup with home made bread, salt and chilli squid, chicken liver pate with brioche and fig chutney (and rare stuff from Armagh, including free-range chicken and Dundrum mussels in Armagh cider cream) and other robust bistro dishes. The salad of Armagh free-range chicken with baby gem lettuce, soda bread croutons, Cashel blue dressing and crispy Fermanagh black bacon sounded like a brilliant re-interpretation of a Caesar, but the scallops won this beauty contest.
It’s hard to get worked up about citrus fruit and pickled beetroot, especially with seared scallops, when you’re perhaps used to the more conventional approach which sometimes includes black pudding. This, however, was a fabulous dish, full of crunchy freshness, vinegary lightness and Strangford brininess. Shredded beetroot like this is subtle but assertive and marries very nicely with the scallops which are equally light.
The adviser’s starter was a generous big lump of finely made pate and the brioche was warm and not too sweet. With a dollop of the fig chutney, it turned out to be utterly addictive.
The root veg soup was a buttery blend, so subtle as to almost kid you for a moment into thinking it was bland. Yet the flavours of parsnip, carrot, potato and something slightly spicier came through in the end.
The Ballymena pork belly with white bean cassoulet confirmed the bistro credentials of the place. The Cloankilty black pudding was a slight disappointment. I expected deeper, breathier flavours and got something verging on the stale. The cassoulet and pork, however, were a winning combination and even though it sounds conventional and obvious, the slices of lightly roasted apple, still crunchy and tangy, completed the dish very nicely.
The server was attentive throughout without ever being overbearing, as could have been
the case in a near-empty restaurant. She was also very sensitive to the wine choice. Having brought the preferred option to the table she asked if we thought it was cool enough. We felt the bottle and decided to go with something cooler. She recommended the New Zealand Marlborough, which was chilled and tasted far better than the £18.95 price on it.
Fifty Two is a good restaurant. It has a fancy room upstairs and a pretty extensive roof garden. The people of Bangor are spoilt for choice and the level of excellence and range of restaurants must surely mean that the town is on its way to culinary stardom.
Duck pate: £6.75
Fish n chips: £11.95
Pork belly: £15.75
Side veg: £2.95
Goujons n chips x 2: £8
Kid’s icecream x 2: £2
Frangipane tart: £5
Bottle NZ Babich: £18.95