A restau­rant full of marine de­lights on the north coast

Af­ter a make-over, this Bal­ly­cas­tle ho­tel is now at the top of its game when it comes to the seafood menu de­liv­ered at great value for money

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD -

Ilove 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. S

taff 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.

SEA VIEW: the Marine Ho­tel in Bal­ly­cas­tle

Joris Minne

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