The experience of eating in Harry's Shack, on the beach in Portstewart, is so startling that we wrote our response in caps in our notebook: TACTILITY.And we added: “They have gotten the tactility – the feel, the vibe – of the venture just right”.
A page or so later we added: “What they have gotten so right is the texture of the place – gritty; sandy, rugged; kick-off-your-shoes-casual – Normandy meets Martha's Vineyard ”The Martha's Vineyard we are thinking of is the old MV, a place of beach culture without a Gwyneth Paltrow in sight. And here on the beach at pretty, comfortable Portstewart, a few miles up the coast from Coleraine, Donal Doherty and his chef, Derek Creagh, have given everyone what everyone wanted: stonking food in a room that might have been washed up on the dunes by the tides.
Harry's Shack takes casual into another orbit. There are old school chairs. The design is up-cycled from cast-offs. The chances of getting a splinter in your hand or leg from the furniture looks pretty high. There is no finesse here, everything has been left to ruggedness, save for the elegance of the cooking, and the cooking is supremely elegant, shown in everything we ate, from a walled garden harvest salad with whipped St. Tola goat's cheese, through a superlative whole sole with lemon-parsley brown butter, brown shrimp, cured cucumber, capers and cauliflower, then a lemon curd with redcurrant and elderflower granola.
But even the food can get spiky at times, for that redcurrant granola had a tartness to it that many restaurateurs would shy well clear of. “ ‘Tart’ should mean ‘Tart’”, said Mr Doherty. And elsewhere the kitchen isn't afraid to dial it up to 11: salt water cured Greencastle haddock gets a buttermilk batter for fish and chips. The fishcakes use smoked mackerel and pile on the flavour with a beetroot and horseradish salad. The chocolate pot sends you off smiling thanks to the power of salted caramel ice cream.
And how have the wealthy folk of North Eastern Northern Ireland taken to a wooden beach shack with punchy food? The Shack has been, in effect, mobbed from day one, right down to running out of food, and attempting to discourage people from travelling knowing that they will be unable to get a seat. Those are pretty much unprecedented problems, and Harry's Shack is, indeed, unprecedented.