Holywood, famed for its glamorous wives, army barracks and strict pub landlord (The Maypole), is now home to a new restaurant.
Created by chef Pearson Morris and manager Saul McConnell, Noble promises to reinvigorate the town. McConnell has the charm of Jay Gatsby and is worshipped by many.
A former manager in the Michael Deane empire, he has taken the plunge with business partner Pearson (formerly of Eipic) and opened the new place in what once was Iona in Holywood’s Church Road.
The health food shop on the ground floor is still there but a new magic has enveloped the first floor with the arrival of McConnell and Morris's crew which includes head server Mark Sallye following months of speculation, waiting for liquor licences and restless anticipation.
Access to the creaking floor is tricky so anyone with mobility issues will find the challenge hard going. But once you’re ensconced at your table in the tiny but elegant dining room, the sense of occasion and general well-being is intense. This is because McConnell, former holder of the Best Restaurant Manager in Ireland, knows how to do the hospitality thing very well indeed.
Three visits in recent days, two for lunch and one for dinner, left me in no doubt that there are no teething problems and that Pearson Morris is perfectly capable of being left to his own devices in the kitchen.
Simple menus display two things: a cautious approach which will not upset the refined Holywood folk, and a degree of innovation which will get the Reiss and Jig Saw set out of Belfast to see what the fuss is about.
But first, in case you think you’re going to be cleaned out, lunches are only £20 for three courses (£15 for two). If you were in Paris or New York and saw those prices-to-quality ratios, you’d never be out of the place. A lunch choice of three starters, three, mains and three desserts is supplemented by plats du jour.
A starter of tempura Strangford oysters for £13 for 6 comes with pickled cucumber. Normally I steer clear of cooked oysters preferring them cold and raw to maximise that briny flavour. Yet cooked as these are, the flavour of the oysters is concentrated and enhanced, melting warmly in your mouth as the brittle, salty tempura cracks and crumbles.
Among the menu starters are chicken liver parfait with plum chutney and brioche, squash soup, beurre noisette, sage and seeds (squash always needs a big support act) and truffle and parmesan risotto. The risotto is homely comfort in a bowl, warm, savoury and lightened by some golden girolles found nearby by Pearson.
Among the mains are a Moroccan style baked beetroot with mojo sauce, couscous, yoghurt and walnut, a Holywood-calibrated chicken breast with barley, chard and lemon and hake which comes with baby vegetables. All are perfect renditions and joyful affairs, light and easy for lunch but worthy of a decent wine.
The day’s special is hake and McConnell suggests a South African chenin blanc which is aromatic, fragrant, light and puts an entirely unexpected spin on the rest of the afternoon which requires taxis and excuses. Sometimes when the moment is that good, you have to drop everything.
A few days later I return with the advisor for dinner. Gone are the gentle early afternoon whispers. Instead, the sound levels are at level nine, McConnell is very busy with the cork screw and the rattle of pans is now barely audible in the nearby open kitchen.
This is the vibe of a good restaurant, that magical atmosphere which can only be created when people, servers, good food and environment come together, following the same happy screenplay, generating a hum of joy.
Main specials include a 12oz Picanha cut steak, Wicklow venison with parsley root, girolles and cavolo nero or 70-day salt aged sirloin. Who’d have thought any meat could survive more than two months! Yet the advisor claims it to be very special indeed, not like other aged meats, but something more refined, intensely flavourful and buttery in texture. The lick of beef dripping over the sirloin further intensifies that beefiness.
The halibut has a barely perceptible crispy, golden skin and is pearly white within, tangy fresh and warm and full of good cheer.
The night unfolds and the socialites mix with the film makers in the intimate dining room. It’s the kind of experience we want to have more often. Which is why people are booking it in multiple dates. Not to be missed.
Cured salmon 6.50
Honey parfait 6.00
Glass Fagayra x 3 22.50
Sparkling water 4.00