Joris Minne: Swift
This new Carrickfergus restaurant shows plenty of promise, with a warm welcome and a flair for local and seasonal produce
New restaurants should be treated with the same patience you would show a toddler taking his first steps. The nightmares experienced by owners choosing the cutlery, furniture and glassware are one thing. But the horror show which an executive chef will have suffered before finally agreeing the menu (strike the last one if you're opening a burger bar, fish and chip counter or pie stall) is worse than any torture.
Whatever way you look at it, the undertaking is vast. Last week I dropped by as Windrush Island Café officially opened in Belfast's University Road and the owner explained to me that the tables were recycled electricity cable spools, the chairs had seen 20 years' service in schools and everything else was salvaged from a previous existence. For the owners, the commitment to open a restaurant following a few years of successful trading as a catering company, was nerve-wracking, even if the financial outlay was kept to a minimum.
Equally nerve-wracking is the birth of new Carrickfergus restaurant The Swift, where the furniture and décor are distinctly new.
The former Point has been transformed into a cool, California-style restaurant and lounge with good lighting, great views across the ancient harbour to King William's pier and the mighty castle beyond. There are lots of visual references to Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver's Travels, who spent some time in the late 1600s as a curate in nearby Kilroot parish. It is very comfortable, there are no draughts and it is warm. Even on this gusty night, all is calm within. My initial thoughts had been that the place looked mildly naff but on a second visit with the adviser I was scolded for my lack of taste and misguided outlook.
The owners, Fortuna Inns, have invested heavily and a top team of former Michael Deane personnel including chef Stephen Alexander and general manager Natasha Clements are flexing their creative muscle to give the town a restaurant worth going to.
Early signs are good. I went twice last week and Stephen Alexander shows a flair for local and seasonal produce, with pumpkin featuring here and there as well as plenty of root vegetables and hot pots on the menu.
His seafood chowder is very good, featuring peas and tiny diced carrots instead of potatoes and packed out with great chunks of fish and fresh mussels. The creamy chowder itself is a quality affair, all velvety smooth and sea-salty. The bread which accompanies it is a treacly, stouty wheaten which is paired with a generous brick of Abernethy butter. This is enough to feed you – you really don't need anything else afterwards.
In the interests of completing this column, however, I had one of the specials, a very decent fillet of plaice served with carrot, pickled dill and cucumber sauce and some very good steamed Comber potatoes. A carrot puree was too sweet to eat and was surplus to the dish anyway.
The adviser declared the five day short rib as an outstanding piece of meat. This is bound to become the Swift's signature dish: melt in the mouth tender, packed to the gills with deep, beefy flavours and served with some well judged parsnip puree and butter carrots. The weak spot was an over-reduced sauce which was dark and just bordering on acrid.
There are some very interesting items here, including boxty, which comes in a dense slice propped up with pair of pulled pork bonbons, or two breaded balls of rillettes-quality meat, two lengths of smoked eel and some accomplished picallili. It's all a bit MasterChef but at £6.50 it's spectacularly good value. The scampi is possibly better than any other I've tasted in recent months: light, breadcrumbed and plentiful, they sit on a bed of unexpected grated carrots and it works very well.
There is a shed load of passion and ambition in The Swift. Natasha is determined to give the town "something it deserves – this isn't just about getting people in from Belfast, it's to give the local population something they can be super proud of". And the chef is a full-on man of the market, coast and field.
Look out for the winter cocktails, some of which are cute and entertaining like the Carrot Cake and the Lemon Meringue, which are good dessert stand-ins but lethal.
The Swift is not perfect – but it's in the hands of experts and becoming popular already, so it soon will be.
Short rib x 2 £28
Glass prosecco £5.50
Glass shiraz cabernet £5
Bottle Hilden's beer £4.20
Rodgers Quay, Carrickfergus BT38 8BE
Tel: 028 9336 8575