Restaurant review: We try out The Portaferry Hotel
The Strand, Portaferry. Tel: 028 4272 8231
The Portaferry Hotel is back. In recent years, the beleaguered business suffered at the hands of volatile exchange rates, a fragile local economy, changes of ownership and eventual closure, all within one decade. Once the pride and joy of John Herlihy who ran the Portaferry Hotel as a small independent country under his benign dictatorship, the place was legendary for the cold shoulder shown towards anyone under 45 and over 46. This joke is only partially removed from the truth. I remember a coach parking outside the front of the hotel entirely blocking off the view to Strangford one morning. John was standing at the door while a parade of older people walked up the ramp for their morning tea and scones. I came up behind them and as John held the door open he hissed at me: "It's like bloody Lourdes."
But despite the acidic humour, Herlihy was genuinely hospitable and kind. He wanted his hotel to be a haven of peace and relaxation, a quality-first, unselfconscious sanctuary for people who placed comfort, wholesome food and quiet coastal charm at the top of their list of preferences.
And this he and his partner Marie delivered in spades. After retirement (he moved next door) the hotel staggered on before eventually closing down entirely.
But new owners Cathal and Mary Arthurs who have been in place since early spring this year, have switched the lights back on. Full of youthful vigour and hospitality they have an instinctive feel for how to re-invigorate the bar and the restaurant. A Sunday visit revealed something completely unexpected. Fun.
If John Herlihy had left a legacy of peace and calm, the Arthurs were adding craic and lightness to the offer. The bar was buzzing with post-wedding parties, families, local men drinking pints and platters of food streaming constantly from the kitchen.
The restaurant and bar will be instantly recognisable to those who ever visited it. The layout, even the furniture seem to be the same. But the change of gear is immediately clear.
Maybe they're using higher wattage bulbs, and could it be that the place is just ever so slightly less clinically tidy? And could it be that a new chef can breathe new life into a classic menu which the owners feel should be maintained and enhanced if not radically changed or thrown out altogether?
The bar menu in the Portaferry Hotel still features scampi for which it was famous, and the mussels, prawn cocktail and other favourites are there, too. But the menu has been tuned up and mildly hipsterised and you will find ham hock terrine, chowder, pulled pork and lobster among other things.
Lobster can be very tricky. I've seen a good lobster destroyed by a few minutes of bad judgement or a dismissive overload of herbs. But the advisor's lobster and chips was possibly the best she had ever had. Ever. A great big lobster half came white and pink, glistening tail meat curled inside the split shell like a vast mother of pearl, the meat from the claw perfectly extracted and flawless, all of it firm under tooth and packed with that crabby sweetness. It was an outstanding success, the garlic and lemon butter, just right. As if this wasn't enough a couple of big cracked crab claws were thrown in providing a very interesting contrast between the crustaceans.
Never before seen in the north (by me) was a bouillabaisse. This is something which I have never been able to choose in Marseille, its home town because it's always so outrageously expensive. A dish formerly made of fish heads and entrails and whatever bits and pieces were left at the end of the market, the cheap dish that made Marseille famous was the poor man's broth. Like oysters, it has become the opposite, something rare and very dear.
In Portaferry the bouillabaisse has all the expensive components yet the price is remarkably reasonable at £14.95.
A vast bowl of broth based on a roux, tomatoes, onions, fish stock and garlic, is populated with crab claws, pieces of haddock, salmon, mussels and some other unidentifiables. It is a wonderful stew made with love and generosity.
The depth of flavours and variety of textures makes it rich, wholesome and hugely enjoyable. The chef's hand may have slipped as he sprinkled fresh tarragon over the bowl: it's a powerful herb full of aniseed and liquorice flavours, and can be overpowering so make sure you ask for this to be tempered, just in case! There are various menus including two courses on a Sunday for £21 or three for £25.
The food in the Portaferry Hotel is better than it has ever been and the service is slick, smiling and on-point.
John Herlihy would approve of what's happened to his creation, even if the chairs aren't tucked in under the tables just so and it's a bit less formal than it once was.
Crab cocktail £8
Ham hock terrine £5.50
Half lobster £18
House Sauv Blanc £4.25
Pint Clonmel £3.60
Espresso x 2 £4.60
Sparkling water £3.95