Restaurant review: We try Glenarm Castle Gardens Tea Rooms
2 Castle Lane, Glenarm. 028 2884 1203
When it comes to the business of holidays, the north has been plagued by a collective lack of confidence. We aren't quite there yet with the promotional sure-footedness of Failte Ireland's proposal to take you on a tour of heaven on earth, a place so wondrous that ancient history, drink, golf, music and an unparalleled west coast merge into a super-destination offering just about everything you could possibly want to do and experience during your two weeks off and then die happily fulfilled.
In the north we shuffle about a bit, slightly embarrassed and very uncertain of ourselves when taking visiting family and friends to the Mournes, the Giants Causeway and the Ulster Museum, unsure as to whether they will impress or not.
Despite the exhortations of Tourism NI we still struggle to appreciate that, on our doorstep, lies a vast collection of exciting experiences and destinations, many of which are international-standard knock-outs.
Look at HMS Caroline, The Gobbins, Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, Derry City, Archbishop Robinson's magnificent Georgian Armagh, the serene Fermanagh lakes, the sleeping giant Sperrins ... I could go on for pages.
Recently, I was in the capable hands of Mid and East Antrim councillor, Gerardine Mulvenna, who originally comes from Feystown and now lives in Ballygally.
She had suggested (it was one of those suggestions made with a steely look and a distinct tone which I instantly recognised as one not to turn down) that I visit the Castle Gardens Tea Rooms at Glenarm Castle, home of the McDonnells, a well-liked noble family. I usually baulk at the thought of stepping on nobility's land but Councillor Mulvenna was insistent that the world should know more about the place.
With the ten-day Dalriada festival in full swing and the thousands thronging to it, it was clear that the McDonnell's are not being precious about keeping the place to themselves. Rather, they have opened the gardens and the tearooms to offer one of the more refined moments you will enjoy in the county.
For one thing, the gardens are breath-taking. The potager was bursting with artichokes, lettuces, radishes, and all sorts of fruit and other summer vegetables.
Beside it, on the other side of the wall, the ornamental gardens were in full bloom and promise to still be at their best as you read this.
But the central interest for me was the tea room where the blackboard featured a simple choice of lunchtime dishes including seafood chowder; crab, harissa and prawn tagliatelle; haddock and chips; shorthorn beef burger and a few other things. I stopped at the first two and couldn't go past them.
Both are rich territory for any food critic because so much can go wrong. Too many potatoes in the chowder, too little crab in the pasta are the usual verdicts.
Outside on the terrace, the sun shining and the breeze keeping the glow on our cheeks from overheating, we enjoyed one of those magical moments you normally associate with a holiday in Cork or Kerry where they are good at this sort of thing.
The chowder came out, mountainous and sparkling, more of a stew than a soup and featuring large chunks of pink salmon, golden pieces of smoked cod and prawns, fresh chopped scallions and halved new potatoes, and a little deep savour of the warm cream at the bottom.
It was sensational but too voluminous (so I brought it home and had the rest of it for lunch the next day when it tasted even better).
The tagliatelle was as magnificent and possibly the best I've ever had. The balance of flavours and generosity of the crab and prawns was outstanding.
My mouth is watering as I recall the deep, salty flavours and the fresh, solid bites of crab and prawns followed by the heat of the harissa.
This is no ordinary tea room where visitors are already distracted by the splendour of the surroundings. Sean Moran is in the kitchen and cooking dishes the likes of which would make any top restaurant's reputation. Seriously.
Add to this an apple crumble as deep as the Arctic shelf and as tangy as the Bramleys can give out, and you have a memorable lunch.
Crab, prawn, harissa tagliatelle x 2£17.50
Apple Crumble £3.50