Restaurant review: The Marine Hotel
1-3 North Street, Ballycastle. Tel: 028 2076 2222
I love Ballycastle. The bracing air, the beach, those views to Fair Head and the charm of the town are all compelling. Just two things have been letting the town down: the ban on horses in recent years at the Aul' Lammas Fair, which makes as much sense as taking the motorbikes out of the North West 200, and until recently, the restricted choice of restaurant options.
Now there's O'Connor's and the Central Bar which are good for honest, big volume food; the Thyme & Co café is quality as is Ursa Minor Bakehouse; and 39 Steak & Seafood is recommended by locals.
But for a full-scale celebration of seafood plucked fresh from the waters nearby, few come close to Chef Pol Shields's occasional special nights in the Marine Hotel's Marconi's Bar & Bistro. Chef Shields has form. He ran the Upstairs at Joe's in Cushendall very successfully and his cookery school focused on seafood. Fish, molluscs and crustaceans are safe in Pol's hands.
Fortunately for Ballycastle, he was lured to the Marine which underwent some radical transformations earlier in 2018, making it a good three-star hotel whose simple and straightforward approach to hospitality means getting the essentials right. For instance, the comfort, cleanliness and warmth of the Marine are exemplary. Staff are on the ball, know how to be welcoming to visitors and are dab hands at that north Antrim charm. They make it look effortless.
Pol's restaurant is on the ground floor. Money has been spent on this too and the dining room is modern, cosy and intimate.
There is a proper bar here with a lounge by the fireplace for those pre-dinner aperitifs and post-dinner digestifs.
The barman could do with a refresher course at charm school and lose a bit of the gruffness (there is a school of barmen who do the gruff thing to pre-empt any trouble, but it's not really needed here), but otherwise, this is a thoroughly pleasant place to be.
Pol Shields runs an occasional seafood night once every couple of months (the next one is February 1) and if the one I attended is anything to go by, it's worth the trip and an overnight. Don't forget to ask for a sea view room.
The menu includes smoked eel on fried sourdough. The eel is plentiful, lightly smoked and bursting with game fish flavours. It is the ultimate in flavour from the river, better than pike which I know locals don't much like but which my French mother says is the king of the water (and then reduces his majesty to tasty little quenelles). There is a deep smooth and salty quality to it which makes it almost as rich as anchovies.
With this is a sparklingly simple wine list including a Petit Chablis for £22. Smoked eel and a light, zesty Chardonnay? Perfect. That same chardonnay stands well with the stone bass, a slab of which appears all crispy, silver skin and pearly white domino pieces within.
Backing up this sensation is a subtle bouillabaisse jus, a dozen or so fingertip sized gnocchi and lush, dark, irony spinach.
The menu is a seafood lover's dream: spaghetti vongole, crispy fried monkfish, oysters Rockefeller, hake fillet, Thai seafood curry, roast cod and others.
The health giving smugness of it all lines you up nicely for the chocolate tart and peanut brittle (although I went for the cheeses as well such was my sense of self-satisfaction at having eaten no chips).
The peanut brittle will last long in my memory. This is no tooth-shattering, glassy confection. This is more crunch than brittle and the salty sugary blend of tastes is unforgettable. Matched to a chocolate tart, it's also unforgiveable.
Three courses of excellent, well considered, expertly executed and charming home cooking for £28 is a trip back in time when Paul Rankin charged that in Roscoff (in the early 90s).
Believe me, an overnight in Ballycastle's Marine Hotel with dinner and breakfast will set you up for a great weekend exploring the delights of the Antrim coast.
Set menu: £28