Posted: 27 January '12 by Niall
It’s been ages since I’ve been in Portaferry – easily 20 years – and I can’t say I remembered too much about it other than the fact that Strangford, just across the lough, was always supposed to be that bit posher.
Portaferry is a small town on the Ards Peninsula in County Down, home of The Exploris aquarium, the Portaferry-to-Strangford ferry and now Bill Wolsey’s latest acquisition, The Portaferry Hotel.
No sooner had the takeover happened than chef Gary Bell was firmly ensconced in the kitchen – and the speed of this recruitment tells you all you need to know about how important the food is to the new hotel regime.
I’d already been warned by a co-worker about the “drive and a half” down to Portaferry from Belfast, so we booked our table for 8:30pm and braved the Belfast rush-hour traffic, heading down the A20 to Strangford Lough.
The Portaferry Hotel
Even with the traffic, it took us just over an hour to reach the hotel, which gave us plenty of time to get into our room and relax before dinner.
The hotel is right on the water-front and, with the roaring fire in the bar glowing through the windows, it looked an attractive sight as we pulled up in the gloom. Making a mental note to have a pint infront of that fire later on, we grabbed our bags and checked in.
We were a bit early for our booking and took the opportunity to make good on our promise, having a drink in the long bar at the front of the hotel. It’s a relaxing spot in there, especially with the fire blazing away, and a big glass of Valpolicella from the wine-list was really helping us to forget the stresses of another week in work when the excellent Marco, one of those hotel managers who seem to be everywhere at once, appeared to tell us our table was ready.
Even with Gary Bell pulling the strings in the kitchen and Bill Wolsey’s name above the door, we really had no idea what to expect from The Portaferry Hotel. It was a good sign, then, when we walked into a busy dining room – in the middle of January, that’s no mean feat.
Another surprise was the Tasting Menu – not what was on it, but that there was one! With all due respect to Portaferry, it was the last thing we expected – par for the course in your swankier Belfast eateries, maybe, but in a country hotel it’s ambitious. The descriptions of the dishes on the tasting menu had us hooked, though, and that’s what we went for.
The best tasting menus are a careful balance between flavours, quantity and a bit of culinary theatre, and this one didn’t disappoint. Before the first “official” dish arrived the waiter appeared with a large dish and whipped the cloche aside, allowing a cloud of billowing smoke to escape and revealing two mother of pearl spoons holding small rolls of delicately smoked salmon. The salmon almost melted in my mouth – it was delicious – but it was the showmanship that had us smiling.
Another wildcard was dropped down to the table, a tray of fish-skin crackling (although I think Gary calls them poppadums). It mightn’t sound to appealing but, honestly, give it the benefit of the doubt – the crackling is crisp, the flavour ethereally fishy, while the sea-salt and vinegar seems hyper-flavoured against the lightly-flavoured crackling.
Next was the first dish from the tasting menu, and the theatre continued. A rough wooden board with fresh seaweed and a piece of fisherman’s netting held a single scallop shell, with pan-fried King Scallop with Baby Spinach, Saffron Mousse and Roasted Almonds. The dark seaweed made the saffron cream seem florescent, but the aroma.. Kelly described the dish as “The Smell of the Sea”, a version of Heston Blumenthal’s “Sounds of the Sea”, and that’s as good a comparison as any. The combination of crunchy almonds, the mineral tang of the spinach and and exotically-spiced cream was heavenly – but the scallop was still the star: delicately meaty, it was plump and sweet and perfectly cooked.
I won’t go into too much detail about the Warm Goat’s Cheese with Bloom Cottage Organic Honey, Black Fig and Parma Ham (sweet and salty – absolutely delicious), the Loin of Venison with Spiced Red Cabbage, Quails Egg, Ragu of Shank and Dauphinoise Potatoes (all of which was superb, but the Ragu of Shank was sticky, slow-cooked perfection), or the Passion Fruit Creme Brulee (intensely fruit-flavoured, sweet and creamy), but the Foie Gras with Carrot and Cardamom Puree and Poached Grapes really needs it’s own paragraph.
Everything about this dish was right, perfectly judged, from the sweet carrot and cardamom puree to the rich, buttery foie gras.. oh, that foie gras.. seared to form a tasty brown crust but still melt-in-the-mouth tender inside.. we could have eaten that dish all night long.
|Scallop, Warm Goat’s Cheese, Foie Gras, Venison and Brulee||£32.95 x 2|
|Bottle of Vallpolicella||£22.95|
We’ve been lucky enough to have had some great meals recently, and The Portaferry Hotel is on that select and all-too-short list. Believe me when I say I’d be delighted if the hotel was right on our doorstep, but I’ll gladly make the journey to eat there again.
The service was superb – both Marco and Peter were really attentive, managing to be professional but still very welcoming – and that seems to be the culture throughout the hotel.
It’s Gary Bell, though, that we were impressed with. His tasting menu was superb – really – and he leaves the kitchen at the end of service to talk to his customers. Not enough chefs make themselves so accessible, and our opinion of Gary and what he’s trying to do went through the roof after a chat – he’s so energetic and passionate about his cooking.
He’s also sourced great ingredients, largely from local suppliers – Marlfield Farm, which supplies the hotel with turkey, geese, chicken, eggs and so on is just 3 miles up the road.
Gary Bell is doing something very special down in there, so keep your eye on The Portaferry Hotel!
The Portaferry Hotel
10, The Strand,
T: 028 4272 8231
You can also find The Portaferry Hotel on Google Maps
Categories: Restaurant Reviews