Joris Minne: Portaferry Hotel
Hotelier Bill Wolsey and chef Gary Bell have breathed new life into this classic restaurant
The Portaferry Hotel is back. After a few years in post-John Herlihy doldrums, the hotel, its bar and restaurant are back with a bang following its acquisition by hotelier to the stars, Bill Wolsey.
When John Herlihy owned it and ran it (with all the discipline of Josef Stalin and the charm of Bob Hope), the Portaferry Hotel was the destination to which time-poor people escaped from the stresses of life in Dublin and Belfast. It was here that they could kick their feet up in those 14 cosy bedrooms overlooking the swirling waters of the Lough and look out the window and wonder why they hadn’t paid the fiver on the ferry to get over to Strangford, which looked even more compelling.
Strangford may be posher and slightly better spoken than Portaferry, but there’s one thing it didn’t have that Portaferry did: John Herlihy. This supremely well-educated and erudite man, always impeccably turned out and in complete command of all situations, introduced class to Portaferry and soon his hotel was the only reason why anybody visited. Until Ards Borough Council opened the aquarium.
Herlihy sold the hotel a few years ago and promptly moved next door with wife Marie; that way he could keep an eye on the monument he had built. This may explain why not a single pillow case, fork or dish was altered in any way during the tenure of the following owners. But it didn’t work out.
So this summer when Bill Wolsey parked his Bentley outside the door and waved a big cheque at the place, there was a big sigh of relief. Here was the return of class.
In the last six weeks, Bill has secured new suppliers (among them local farmers including Markfield’s) and installed a marvellous new chef, Gary Bell, recently escaped from the kitchens of Kevin Thornton in Dublin. On the year’s most miserable Sunday evening six of us piled in for some dinner, not expecting anything new. For one thing we were convinced that no matter who owned them, places like the Portaferry Hotel were there to respond to local demand. And local demand would be for convention and tradition, nothing fancy.
Right enough, the place looked exactly the same as it had done for the last 20 years. But lo and behold, here was a tasting menu with words like ‘amuse bouche’, ‘Alsace bacon’ and ‘£29.95 per person’. These were clear evidence that change of a dramatic kind was afoot.
Gary Bell’s tasting menu, by the way, was excellent in every respect — it was beautifully judged in terms of flavours and textures, portions and timings. It also had elements of showbiz that made us gleeful like children. Front-of-house service is very good: good enough to make this work.
Even the two youths (Clare, 15, and Charlotte, 11) were impressed by the cloche being lifted from a dish to reveal clouds of incense-like steam from cherrywood chips underneath three mother of pearl spoons, each with a tiny roll of smoked salmon. It was a great opening — and this was just the amuses bouche! Alongside these came espresso cups of creamy celeriac soup, frothed up a bit and reinforced with the deep, woodland-floor flavours of truffle oil.
A seafood chowder that followed had more prawns, whitefish and salmon than potato cubes and the tarragon cream and tiny specks of Alsace bacon made with a rich, but not heavy, liquor. I tasted a couple of the potato cubes (wanting to save myself for the other four courses yet to come) and these were simply beautiful. The taste of new potatoes in such company is one of the culinary wonders of Ireland.
Pork belly gets short shrift these days because people think they’ve seen too much of it about the place. Yet if properly cooked, it remains a completely seductive dish, especially when it’s served with apple puree, root vegetables (carrot and turnip), and thyme jus. It was crispy, and the meat shredded away underneath the knife. And the apple jelly that sweetened up the salty pork was very well balanced.
There were mutterings around the table that the thyme jus might have been reduced a bit more, but the advisor and I dismissed this and put it down to the very good Chianti (from a wine list also about to be revolutionised).
Fresh lobster chunks in well-timed tagliatelle and creamy sauces with chives (and half a glass of champagne) took us through to the venison dish. This triumphant main course came with dauphinoise potato with a lovely deep hint of canelle. The bed of red spiced cabbage was excellent and a great backdrop to the smooth venison but the blackberry jus was a surprise. Blackberries and venison — perfect. Gary Bell later explained that the very tasty and tender loin cuts — they were exceptionally good — were actually haunch. Without revealing too much, he talked of marinating them for weeks on end. For this alone, its worth making the trip.
It’s a rare thing to enjoy dinner in an historic restaurant that is in transition. Over the next couple of weeks things will visibly change in the Portaferry, which is great news for me — I will have to take the advisor back to report on how it’s all going.
Tasting menu x 3 £89.85
Prawn cocktail £7.95
Goat’s cheese salad £7.95
Sticky toffee pud £4.50
Coffee & mints x 4 £7.80
Chablis ½ bottle £10.50
Garlic bread x 2 £5.90
Chicken strips £4.95
Chicken tortilla £4.50
Choc fudge cake £2.75
Choc nut sundae £2.75
Diet Coke x 2 £3.60
Lrg sparkling water £3.80
The Strand, Portaferry,
Co Down BT22 1PE. Tel: 02842 728231