Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant review: Underground Dining in Bangor

119 High Street Bangor Tel: 028 9147 7788

By Joris Minne

Is it me or has Bangor gone off the boil of late? There used to be all sorts of exciting cafes and restaurants in the town: the Wheathill, Cafe Essence, the Boat House, Guillemot and a few others had raised Bangor's profile as a destination worth visiting for the food alone. So what happened? Why has it gone quiet?

Well, clearly, it's me, because the restaurants are still there and a couple more have opened since the last time I looked. I'm not sure why I harboured this false perception of Bangor. It just goes to show you how fickle diners are and how unwilling we may be to travel to places to eat.

It shows you how vulnerable restaurants are to trends and fashions. It also proves why local food and restaurant events, festivals, weeks and so on, are critical to promoting themselves.

I missed the opening of Underground Dining at the top of the High Street, so I can't tell you how long it's been there. I do know that there was another restaurant on the site four or five years ago, which was owned and run by a charming medical man who did wonderful things with chicken livers and boasted one of the best cheeseboards in Ireland.

Fortunately, and thanks to the gift of Twitter, chef patron Gary Bell got in touch suggesting a visit to Underground Dining was overdue. A man of action and swift decision-making ability, I was there with the brother a day or two later (last Sunday) and how glad am I that I made the effort.

Underground Dining is a nice little neighbourhood restaurant with modest frontage. The front of house is managed by a woman of extraordinary hospitality and ability. It turns out Louise is an experienced restaurant professional in Bangor and we were able to trace our first meeting back 20 years ago to the excellent Back Street Cafe in an old scout shed in Ventry Lane.

Because it's Sunday, the menu is a series of small taster dishes. There are 12 of them and, as we sift through them, it slowly dawns on us that we are going to have to have all of them.

The brother is vegetarian and, although he is now avoiding sausages, red meat and fowl, he is not entirely infallible. Happily, half the dishes fit within his interpretation of 'vegetarian' and we embark on a two-hour shift, during which Louise just kept bringing us food. And drink.

At £2.50 per dish, my quick calculation that £30 will cover it prompts incredulity, because from the initiating chowder, packed with smoked haddock, hake and salmon, to the truffle Israeli couscous, all are flawless, generously proportioned and delicious.

There are ricotta-stuffed sweet red poponcino peppers with salted cashew nuts, Young Buck blue cheese panacotta with baby gem, salted walnuts and a balsamic reduction, Cajun-spiced venison burger with watercress mayo and Maldon sea salt and sherry vinegar fish skin poppadoms with chips and much, much more.

We are enchanted by the wave after wave of delights and putting the food critic head on, I scold the brother to remind him that we are working, that we need to keep cool heads and try not to be charmed and seduced by all this. But it's no good. We are goners. The food really is that good.

The wonder of this meal is how it reinvigorates that sense of excitement about eating out. Here we are in a very modest (clean, modern and simple) looking place, eating something which is the closest I've ever been to a proper banquet.

It's a medieval thing: Louise brings more and more as we demolish the last things she brought. We look for flaws and disappointments and find none.

Could the Young Buck blue cheese panacotta have had a bit more kick? Were the spiced pork and fennel sausages drowned out by the tomato and basil sauce? No, not really.

Highlight for me (and I'm sorry for being such a heathen) was the salty chips accompanying the fish skin. These golden, hand-cut, crispy little fries captured the 'essence de frite' like no other. Beautifully fresh and hot, they are a triumph in their perfect simplicity.

There is a full vegetarian lunch menu, a vegan wine list and a strong awareness of what the new generation of diners need and want.

I was wrong. Bangor has not gone off the boil. It just needs to make a bit more noise about its portfolio of excellent restaurants. A Bangor Food and Restaurant Week might help.

The bill

12 taster dishes..................................£30

Bottle Chablis.....................................£30

Large Peroni.....................................£5.50

Dessert tasters x 4.............................£10

Americano........................................£2.10

Coke..................................................£2.50

Total................................................£80.10

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