Restaurant Review: Smuggler's Table, Co Down gem that's worth the detour
Smuggler's Table. 2 Bridge Street, Killyleagh, Co Down. Tel: 028 4482 8158
Killyleagh, on the shores of Strangford Lough, has become a favourite stopping point for cyclists on weekend group runs. Swarms of men and occasionally a woman or two in bright, multi-coloured Lycra tops descend on the small town following a pleasurable pedal through the drumlin countryside around.
The Picnic Cafe at the top of High Street, near the castle, is their favourite. The coffee is excellent, the tray bakes and lunches fresh, wholesome and plentiful, and the service charming and dedicated.
Until now, the High Street was the only bit of the town I knew, as it is also home to the Dufferin Arms. But keep going down the hill and cross Cross Street and the same road becomes Bridge Street.
Here you will find the Smuggler's Table, an attractively distressed and ramshackle bar and restaurant with rickety veranda amid overgrowing foliage. This is a clever disguise. While the bar may look like a shebeen of old, the kind of place in which you might hide away from, say, the likes of debtors, lovers, or customs officers, it houses one of the best restaurants in the county.
The bar may be homely and cosy, but step into the spartan little dining room and you know they mean serious business. Locals have been raving about Smuggler's Table ever since chef Roy Abraham took over the stove. But locals can't be trusted, because we're all madly loyal to our communities.
Therefore, for the purposes of maximum solid background intelligence and trustworthy experience, I have appointed Scaddy man Rory Miskelly to the navigator's position. He's a regular, but technically not a Killyleagh man, Scaddy being at least three miles away.
Anyway, he knows his food and we turn up on a quiet midweek lunchtime, not expecting much, to be frank. Yet what unfolds in the next 45 minutes is a gentle rollercoaster of wonder and joy, some of it deep-fried, others beautifully steamed, or baked, and all of it deliciously presented and judged.
Take the seafood chowder: a textbook, chunky potage featuring everything you could wish for, including smoked haddock, salmon, mussels and a creamy, savoury broth bursting with Strangford saltiness.
A Jerusalem artichoke soup, however, delivers the knock-out. This is rich, liquid velvet, a golden-coloured bowl of just-right, veloute consistency, the sweet and savoury flavours heightened by a drizzle of truffle oil. It is one of the finest soups I've had in years.
There are various lunchtime choices, not many, but enough to offer decent variety between seafood and land food. The navigator and I are both seamen at heart and there's scampi on the menu.
Scampi is a dish which sorts the chaff from the wheat, the strong from the weak, the seaworthy from the tubs. It's a tough call on any restaurant. You can buy in very good quality scampi from nearby Kilkeel, or you can get cheap rubbish in from the wholesalers.
Thankfully, chef Abraham does something entirely unexpected. The tempura-coated langoustine tails are brought out, golden and sparkling on a bed of lettuce leaves doused in a tartare-like dressing. On the side is a little pot of chips. The chips are divine, hand cut, differently sized, crispy and fluffy, bursting with earthy, spuddy flavour.
The scampi beckoning from their bright green, lush bed of salad are unbearably appetising; expectations are high. But there's no need to brace for disappointment; these are just the ticket, the scampi you always wanted, but somehow never quite got.
Some places come close, but here, the scampi is perfect. The juicy, tender prawn inside is within a light crunch of the tempura and that salad with the tartare dressing adds a dimension you would never have hoped for. Its softness adds to the brittle batter's texture.
I just don't want it to end, but sadly and eventually it does (despite the generous portions). Consolation awaits in the apple and strawberry crumble, which is as refined as any Parisian patisserie and comes with ice-cream and custard. Very classy.
Smuggler's Table dining room, unlike the bar, wins no prizes for looks. It's a cold room, lacking in atmosphere. Miskelly says it's far cosier at night.
But the service is so warm and friendly, the food is that good, you forget this very quickly. I apologise to the locals now for revealing their well-kept secret.
Killyleagh, you've had it too good for too long. Time to let the foodies know.
Soup x 2: £9.90
Hophouse x 2: £7
Sparkling water x 2: £3.60
Crumble x 2: £11.90
Coffee x 2: £3.80