Restaurant review: Shelby's - This Holywood nod to US street food has star quality
What's not to like about this Co Down restaurant, which specialises in producing poshed up-fast food but can also do exquisite fine dining?
Holywood is a charming seaside town cut off from the sea by a four-lane bypass and the railway line. It has streets named 'Shore Road' and 'The Esplanade', but to get to the shorefront walk and park, you need to dodge the incoming Bangor Range Rovers, get across the busy transportation routes and leave Holywood, its elegant High Street, ancient priory and remarkable Maypole Bar behind.
Some people take amazing Instagram shots at sunset of the rickety old jetty, and you'd think you were on the banks of southern Louisiana's Mississippi Delta.
But really, even Holywoodsters go up the road to Crawfordsburn Park if they want a bracing coastal walk.
For every ying, there's a yang, however, and the flip side of being so close, yet so far, from the sea is the abundance of great places to eat in Holywood.
It's been a source of culinary pleasure since the days of Iona, Fontana and the Dirty Duck. Now there are classy bistros like Noble, where informality and rustic comfort dances with precision of cooking and world-class ingredients.
Noble is the real McCoy. Chef Pearson Morris and manager Saul McConnell have nailed the urban Ulster zeitgeist, blending a democratic approach and unselfconscious coolness with brilliance in the kitchen to produce what we all love: excellent food without the ponce.
There is a place for ponce, or fine dining, as people in Lisburn call it, but Holywood isn't it.
Proof of this is Shelby's. Shelby's made it to my top 10 favourite places of 2018 because of two things: the cocktails and the poshed-up street food. Being in Holywood, it is more avenue food, of course. But honestly, you will not enjoy a dirtier corn dog, mac 'n' cheese or a burger quite like those made here.
Oisin Montgomery is an unusually talented chef. Anyone who can imbue the simple and low-cost staples of American urban fast food vans with this degree of quality, flavour and texture is someone with a clear vision and ability.
I lived in the US for a few years and never had a corn dog. This was my first time. (I thought it would be a corn cob in a bap or something).
A German-style Kielbasa sausage tightly enveloped and cooked in corn bread is very tidy. There's no slobber factor here as it is fully integrated.
A homemade ketchup to dip in is rich and just the right side of sweet. This is what I mean about Holywood street food. You eat it with your hands, yet it doesn't wreck your dignified, stylish look.
Southern fried oysters, featuring fresh fat bivalves from Carlingford, are served in a crispy spiced shell and a salted strawberry salsa. Sounds intuitively right and it is.
I'm not a fan of cooked oysters, but these are something else: the oysters themselves maintain their silky-soft meaty moistness, and the warmth enhances the flavour; the spiced crispiness on the outside adding bite and texture. It's wonderful and addictive.
There are many others: one-bite nachos, buffalo cauliflower, fish tacos, Canadian poutine, chicken and waffles and so on. They are all exciting, sinful and very tasty.
There is no burger on the menu - you have to ask for it. Brahm, the manager and cocktail genius, likes to play cat and mouse but persevere; tell him you read about it here and you insist on having the burger.
Oisin Montgomery's burger is probably the best in the North, but everybody's different, so make up your own mind.
The identity chosen by Shelby's - a bit cool, a bit speakeasy, a bit drop-in - still needs some work. Oisin and Brahm are intending to run supper club-style gourmet wine nights, almost as if to prove they can do the grown-up stuff just as well.
I went to their first one last week and was blown away by the quality of the food.
Five dishes, including beef tartare and pigeon dog (yep), a crab salad with apple gelee, asparagus with hazelnut vinaigrette and poached egg, 48-hour short rib and a dessert called a blondie (a white chocolate brownie) with accompanying wines from Prohibition was an eye-opener.
Give Shelby's time to settle down and bed in. It's a place of great service and food, and even if the room seems slightly bereft of mood or character, go with it.
That street food is outstanding, the supper club is memorable, so you have a choice.
But whatever you do, don't give in to Brahm's funny haha line about we have no burgers. Insist!
Corn dog £4
Southern fried oysters£2 (each)
Quack Mac 'n' cheese£8
(Supper Club, £40)