The Salty Dog, Bangor, County Down
Surrounded by A-roads and eviscerated by out-of-town shopping mausoleums, the centre of Bangor, in north County Down is a mix of charity shops, pound shops, and places that never appear to thrive.
Yet down on the seafront, there is a swish marina of glossy yachts and elegant Victorian houses that speak of a more salubrious history. This face of Bangor suggests there might yet be a place for a swanky restaurant, and the place that has emerged to put Bangor on the culinary map is the restaurant/hotel/pub venture, The Salty Dog, down near the Marina, in a lovely old Victorian hotel that has lived through various guises, but has served as a culinary pit stop in Bangor for generations.
The restaurant has recently been acquired by the Arthur family, and is run by the children of Hans Arthur who owns the super successful Donaghadee pub, Grace Neill’s. (I ought to write *award winning* pub, that's how it's always described) Hans Junior and Ashleigh Arthur have teamed up with chef Derek Creagh, and The Salty Dog is the talk of the Province.
Part of the reason why the 'Dog is the focus of attention is that the loss of a Michelin star for Deane's Restaurant in Belfast somewhat coincided with the departure of Head Chef Derek, and Mr Creagh's taking over the stoves in Bangor. The culinary zeitgeist has shifted.
Derek Creagh's menu is very different to the food he was cooking for Deane - this is simpler, more accessible cooking. But there is a comparable level of finesse, and I sense the influence of Michael Deane through the food pairing rationale, a fact that makes comparison of the two restaurants relevant.
The brief here is to provide all the staples of pub grub. So there is the burger (Black Angus rump steak, tomato relish and cheddar it may have, but it's still a burger), the seafood pie, fish and chips, of course, and steady classics like deep fried whitebait.
The specials are more individual. I ordered smoked mackerel fishcake, horseradish, pickled beetroot and apple salad, whilst my two friends both had pumpkin soup with curried pumpkin seeds and crisp wild rice. I asked for the mackerel because of a reference to Hugh's Fish Fight on the menu, and wondered if mackerel burgers are going to take over the world. Judging by these, they won't, but simply because they aren't an accessible, immediate dish. The fish cakes were uncompromisingly fishy, deliciously so, and the rest of the plate was dominated by different variations of apple. I loved the communion wafer thin crispy fried apple especially.
This is a modern dish, with the food arranged horizontally rather than vertically, telling the narrative of the apple and the sea. The soup was equally as vocal in its celebration of pumpkin with the contrasting crispy re-interpretation of wild rice.
The only other time the cooking got so latest-fashion with our dinner was with the petit fours, an uncompromising mix of savoury and sweet: we tasted salt, caramel and pistachio in one, peanuts, chilli and nougat in another.
It's an ergonomic space to eat in. I noticed that the bar was relatively quiet, so people are choosing first to eat in the restaurant. Why wouldn't you? It's great value with mains for around a tenner and starters around six quid. There are no pictures on the walls, but ergonomics takes over again in the decoration. It's amazing how attractive a stainless steel fire hydrant can look on a wall, to say nothing of shiny bar taps, and who needs pictures when you have the tactility of open brick, painted tongue'n'groove, giant blackboards, a studded leather booth and seats, lovely sash windows, and a huge wood framed mirror going the whole length of the wall.
Most of the decoration comes on the plates, and in the various implements the chef uses to present the food. There are stainless baskets for the home-made (and very wonderful) bread, galvanised tins for the chips, enamel pots for pies and vegetables, baby stainless steel saucepans for sauces and kilner jars for salads, puddings and dressings. The discipline of a starred chef is evident in the impeccable glassware, gleaming on every table.
And this is a disciplined and expert team (the second chef, Stevie Hope, has just won some Gordon Ramsey gong, apparently). The little balls of lightly pickled cucumber that garnished a dish of salmon with brown butter, brown shrimp and a parsley emulsion had all been sculpted out carefully (who would want that job?) The red-wine 'baked beans', mixed with pancetta lardons, tasted so good with some local cod that it reminded me that we overcook beans and they taste much better just before they go soft. The only thing I didn't warm to was a 'parsnip and gingerbread puree' that sounded amazing to read on the menu, but was no more than heavy croquettes that I think must have been fried in a seal of gingerbread crumbs, but didn't really taste gingery. The rest of the dish – honey glazed Emyvale duck, creamy savoy cabbage and cherries – was a knockout.
This expertise also extends to the floor staff. Only Northerners seem to have the knack of mixing absolute professionalism and formality with a breezy, conversational concern and streetsmart savvy.
We have family links with Bangor, indeed my mother-in-law has a cupboard full of gold-rimmed delph from the same hotel in one of its previous incarnations, so I suspect this is going to become something of a home from home for us. There's no reason to visit Bangor, quite honestly. But the Salty Dog is a very good reason to visit Bangor.