Eating out: New look for Olderfleet
42 Fleet Street,
028 2827 2007.
WELCOME to Larne and welcome to the edge. Of what, it's not altogether unclear. Europe? The Union? Madness?
That sea border is so close you could almost trip over it, and as the signs on intermittent lamp posts on the way into the town will tell you, (some) people aren't happy about it.
Though the fact the news last week that there isn't going to be a ridiculous bridge or stupid tunnel built from Larne – or anywhere else – to Scotland came and went with barely a murmur suggests there's maybe not so much madness around after all.
But that's not all that's happening down by the water. The Olderfleet sits as the last stop before getting your feet wet, right next to the harbour.
It's a bar, and has been for a long time, but it's undergone massive change over the past 18-plus months.
Even before the pandemic there were plans to transform the outdoor space – of which there's a lot – as well as everything within the walls.
The result is a modern bar of the type you get when somewhere wants to freshen things up while looking like they're not really trying. Warm wood, leather and glass, all thoughtfully employed.
Modernising a bar space doesn't always mean exposing brick, distressing wood and leaving the pipework out for all to see.
It should be noted now that a far more practical member of my family had a substantial hand in the remodel, but we're not here to review the ceiling, so there's no danger of being swayed by any biases. The food does that all by itself.
Chef Pol Shields, formerly of, among others, the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle and Upstairs at Joe's in Cushendall, came back down the Antrim coast road to his home town and has hit the ground at a furious pace, helping the Olderfleet straddle the blurred line between pub and restaurant.
It's not just straddling, it's sitting casually swinging its legs either side of the line, with utter and thoroughly well-placed confidence.
The menu says the chowder is award-winning. What award, I'm not sure. After tasting it, a Nobel prize seems about right. Do they do one for soup? I know there's a piece prize for sandwiches...
Terrible jokes aside, the chowder is flawless. A huge bowl – you can get an even bigger one if you want – arrives, spilling over with among other things scallop, prawn, salmon, smoked haddock, mussels, fennel and samphire, all swimming in a deeply fishy cream under a crisp crown of seaweed.
Every spoonful brings another discovery – every piece of seafood tasting entirely of itself.
It comes with an almost fudgy block of Guinness-tanged wheaten, is huge, generous and clearly the product of immense skill. And the winner is...
The chowder is a showstopper, but little balls of goats cheese, gently oozing warmth inside their crisp shell, and popcorn cauliflower under their blanket of a sticky perfumed Korean barbecue sauce, could take pride of place any other day.
The menu ticks most of the expected gastropub boxes, but takes some welcomes detours along the way. Exemplary fried chicken come with red pepper ketchup and not quite thin, not at all thick, fries carpet-bombed with chilis, aioli and cheese.
Today's specials include a fat disc of textbook gammon under a proud sunburst of a fried egg with absolutely 100 per cent thick chips and mushy peas. It's £12.50 worth of everything you want.
For a bit more there's half a lobster from up the coast at Red Bay, but the £21.50 you spend for the beautifully cooked beast, under a slick of butter a tangle of samphire - as well of a great bowl of fries, this time with parmesan and aioli - makes you feel like you've pulled a fast one on the customs officials across the road.
The generosity follows through to the desserts, between bowls of sticky toffee pudding and apple and plum crumble you could get lost in, to a quivering creme caramel and a lemon roulade that's a slice of a crisp-edged cloud, shot through with sharp curd. And, by the way, perfect raspberry ripple ice cream.
There's not much more you could ask, and if you did the friendly, efficient service would probably provide it.
And, in case you were wondering, the ceilings look pretty good as well.
Seafood chowder £6.95
Popcorn cauliflower £6.50
Goat's cheese fritters £6.75
Gammon and egg x2 £25
Kentucky fried chicken £14.50
Half lobster £21.50
Lemon roulade £5.75
Sticky toffee pudding £5.75
Apple and plum crumble £5.75
Creme caramel £5.75