Eating Out: Just popped in to Ye Olde Seafood Bar
Mourne Seafood Bar pop-up restaurant
The Old Tea House
1 Kings Road
0754 0567 003
I'M THE sort of person who needs to know where and when I'm getting my next three meals, so suffice to say I had Mourne Seafood's latest pop-up event in my diary for quite some time.
From unpretentious beginnings in Dundrum, the much-loved fish restaurant also has a long-established Belfast branch as well as occasionally taking its culinary expertise on the road.
This time it took the Whitehead Festival as an opportunity to stretch its reach up the eastern Irish Seaboard to east Antrim and colonise its pretty tearooms for two nights.
To say that The Old Tea House is quaint is doing it, and indeed the seaside town in which it is contentedly nestled, a disservice. Whitehead makes Miss Marple's St Mary Mead look like a teeming metropolis.
Proud of its status as "the town with no streets" (planners stuck exclusively to roads, avenues and parks), brightly coloured houses perch precariously along steeply sloping streets that run down to a harbour straight out of Toytown.
And, much like Brigadoon, this little slice of whimsy guards its secrets jealously. On arriving for the 8.45pm sitting I ran into an acquaintance who was frankly dumbstruck to see me.
"But what are you doing here?" she spluttered in amazement. "You're not from Whitehead."
Was it coincidence that a request for directions to an off-licence saw us end up at the railway station?
Later in the evening, a fellow diner rose from his seat with the the loud declaration: "Right, we've spent enough time in Whitehead, we're off back to the Island." Islandmagee is four miles up the road.
The very fact that Co Down's finest managed to overcome this reluctance of the locals to mingle with anyone outside their trusted bridge pairs is a testament to the quality with which the name Mourne Seafood is now synonymous.
The Old Tea House is a well-preserved Edwardian building, complete with a soaring ceiling, Art Nouveau stained-glass windows, enormous crystal chandeliers, wooden panelling, engraved coving, expensive China crockery hanging daintily from shelves and even a coat rack complete with period hats.
It is definitely a 'tea room' rather than a restaurant – there is only one toilet, for example and a shop counter along the back wall – and doesn't normally open in the evenings. Elegant breakfasts, hearty lunches and cream teas are its usual fare.
Dinner, for two nights only, was eaten at sturdy tables, crammed close enough together to cause an occasional problem for the excellent waiting staff, but not so near that you were disturbed by conversation from neighbouring tables – perhaps the high ceilings aided the acoustics in that regard.
Mourne Seafood had no intention of scaring the horses, with a simple and straightforward £25-£30 set menu of its fail-safe classics.
Of course when the chef is the ebullient Andy Rea, 'simple and straightforward' are still worth braving suspicious locals for.
First up was its seafood chowder. Crisp buttered croutons cradled in silky creaminess, with each mouthful containing a perfect balance of fish and vegetables.
That was followed by salt 'n' chilli squid with chilli jam and nappa slaw. There's barely a restaurant you go to these days that doesn't serve some version of battered calamari – it's this decade's sweet chilli chicken – and the palate can get a bit jaded. This particular one even features in the restaurant's cookbook, but in the hands of its master it had the bite, balance and punch of flavour that makes it a welcome old friend at the dinner table.
The main course was roast fillet of hake – complete with crisp skin – served on a rich saffron risotto cake with wilted summer greens and a refreshing sauce vierge.
The meal rounded off with a self-contained passion fruit tart, the sweet filling held firmly within even shortcrust pastry, and the whole complemented with a tangy Indian mango salsa.
As can be the case with a set menu, however lovely the individual parts, the entirety can be overwhelming, although a party smaller than ours might have been able to take it in slower, easier stages.
Believe it or not, I don't often leave a restaurant knowing fellow diners are relieved to see the back of me. Unfortunately for the good people of that parish, I enjoyed myself so much I'll be back for the cream tea soon.