Restaurant review: The Gobbins Cafe
Middle Road, Islandmagee. Tel: 028 9337 2318
It's July and Northern Ireland's holiday lights are all switched on. Tourism chiefs are nervous about the marching season and how it may look to outsiders when things go wrong (remember: it's the battle, not the bottle), tour operators are now hauling hundreds of foreign visitors around the country in search of Game of Thrones experiences, golf rounds or outdoorsy adventures, and hoteliers, restaurant owners and bar keepers are doing everything they can to earn a few shillings while the going's good.
You can tell it's summer because some of the best restaurants are closed. Ox is now shut for most of July proving that they don't need the tourists for their business.
When I see this (and Belfast is not alone: Parisian restaurants tend to do the same in August) I can't help but think about the café in Newry which used to close for lunch between 1 and 2pm.
But visitors still have a great choice of restaurants to choose from, particularly in Belfast whose reputation as a foody city is now a prime reason for them coming here in the first place.
And while the tourism figures show a growth in numbers coming to and staying overnight in Belfast, possibly at the expense of other destinations, who may be using the city as a base from which to explore our small wee country, some spots are showing great promise.
Take The Gobbins Cliff Path on Islandmagee on which I have been working in an advisory role.
Those clever people at Mid and East Antrim have resurrected one of the great tourist experiences on the island of Ireland by restoring the Gobbins path and adding a dedicated visitor centre. And in the visitor centre is a restaurant.
This may at first appear to be a modest little place but, on closer inspection, it hosts some of the finest foods you can get in County Antrim. There is also some fine input from Tyrone with a Quinn's ice cream bar but the savoury stuff is all from around the county.
I'm not convinced that local is always better but on this occasion the Gobbins menu features ingredients which are probably among the best quality on the island.
Take the modest crisp sandwich on offer at £2.95. No Tayto here, rather a more refined approach in which the Glens of Antrim sweet potato crisps feature.
There is much to write about a crisp sandwich. It's the quickest meal you can prepare and, if the bread, butter and choice of crisp is right, the blend of flavours and textures can be overpoweringly wonderful. Think about it and then make one yourself. A couple of slices of fresh pan loaf, soft as a cloud and sweet as brioche, spread with butter provide the smooth mattress and blanket between which to experience the brittle crunch and chilli heat bite of the Glens of Antrim sweet potato crisp.
There are more substantial snacks here for the adventurer, such as the Ballylumford Bap, Paddy's Irish Pizza and the Wise Guy Fry. Here you will find sausages and bacon from local butchers McMasters, eggs from Ballyboley farm, and soda bread from McKee's bakery.
And if, like me, you remember the salads of youth where salad cream was king, you will thrill at the sight of the Seven Sisters Salad made of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, potato salad, egg and pineapple with a choice of chicken, ham or tuna.
All they need to do to make this perfect is to add beetroot and some chopped scallions. The cafe also puts on a daily hot dish so expect to see quality soups and an Irish stew served with McKee's wheaten bread and soda bread fingers.
Visitor centre cafes have upped their game in recent times and you can see this quality in places like the Ulster Museum where Yellow Door famously do the catering.
Other top class cafés are in the FE McWilliams visitor centre and art gallery in Banbridge and in Ballymena's Braid centre. Look out for them.
They are inexpensive, always managed by people who know their job is in hospitality, and usually very reliable.
Paddy's Irish Pizza with ham ........£4.95
Quinn's Ice cream milk shake ...... £3.50