I’m often asked how I decide which restaurants to review. The truth is that there is no real science behind it other than an honest desire to eat in the particular places that I choose. I hear about restaurants from a variety of sources – from newspapers and magazines, online and by word-of-mouth. I fervently believe that great food can be found in many restaurants all around the country and not just in our larger cities so I try to ensure that my reviews reflect this and that all four corners of the country are covered. I compile endless ‘must-visit’ lists and I am always planning my next meal out.
Like many people do before they travel these days, I decided to carry out some online research on the best places to eat whilst in Northern Ireland during my recent visit there. It quickly emerged that one of the most popular spots is Harry’s Shack to be found at the edge of the strand in Portstewart on the dramatic and wind-swept North Atlantic coast. Reading descriptions of its location conjured up somewhat romantic images for me, of a wild and rugged shoreline at the mercy of the elements. I found the idea of dining in a shack intriguing so I immediately booked a table for lunch using the restaurant’s electronic booking system.
Travelling through beautiful countryside, I had a very enjoyable drive up from Derry where I had spent the night. On my arrival in Portstewart, I quickly found the restaurant in time for my lunch booking and was really looking forward to my meal having worked up quite an appetite on my journey there.
Nestled amongst the sand-dunes, Harry’s occupies a shed-like structure which is owned by the National Trust. With breath-taking views of an angry looking ocean, the dining room is unlike any that I have ever been in before. Long wooden tables and benches are modestly dressed with simple cutlery, glass tumblers and orange-coloured paper napkins. An open kitchen located at the far end of the restaurant adds to the laid-back and unrestricted feel in the restaurant.
I had arranged to meet a fellow food writer for lunch and once comfortably seated we examined the menu which was brief but had some tempting dishes on it. Given the restaurant’s location we weren’t surprised to see a number of fish and seafood dishes listed. A slight hiccup with our order resulted in our starters arriving almost half an hour after we had ordered them and quite a while after other diners who had been seated after us had been fed. Although initially peeved, all minor irritations were quickly swept away on eating the food.
Most restaurants have a signature dish, something that keeps regulars happy and entices new patrons through the door. The Spiced Whitebait with Marie Rose Sauce & Garden Leaves (£5.50) in Harry’s has a devoted following so, in addition to our individual starter choices, we decided to order one to share between us. I’ve always loved whitebait, especially when simply prepared as these were; just gently dusted with flour before being deep-fried until they are crispy. The accompanying Marie-Rose sauce was excellent, with a restrained sweetness and a decent spicy-hit that complemented the whitebait perfectly. Full of clean and distinct flavours with an addictive crispy texture we gobbled every last one of them down.
Both our individual starters were beautifully presented. Jim’s choice – a Chicken Salad with Buttermilk Dressing and Crispy Hen’s Egg (£5.50) included a generous amount of tender chicken, a nice selection of baby leaves and an impeccably cooked soft-boiled egg which had been bread-crumbed and then deep-fried. The buttermilk dressing was absolutely stunning and with its slightly lactic tang managed to bring out the underlying sweetness of the chicken.
My St. Tola Goat’s Cheese Panna Cotta, Pickled Garden Carrots and Granola (£6.50) had a light and almost summery feel. I was delighted to see a savoury panna cotta featured and with the distinctive flavour of St. Tola goat’s cheese coming through nicely, I thought that it was a huge success. The panna cotta had a lovely freshness and was velvety smooth without being over-set. Along with a sprinkling of toasted granola, paper-thin slices of lightly pickled carrots provided textural contrast against the soft and creamy panna cotta whilst their slight acidity balanced the dish perfectly.
Jim’s Fish & Chips with Mushy Peas and Tartare Sauce (£11.00) consisted of a large piece of haddock coated in a light and crunchy batter which had been made using buttermilk. The accompanying mushy peas and tartare sauce were both excellent. Mushy peas can be divisive but I’m a huge fan and these, with their slightly mealy texture and the natural sweetness of the peas just coming through, were delicious. Although cutlery had been provided I feel that there is something incongruous about using a knife and fork to eat food like this, so like excited children we got stuck-in and used our hands.
Burgers are ubiquitous, to be found everywhere, but this didn’t stop me from ordering the 6oz ‘Beach’ Burger & Chips, Brioche Bap, Dressed Garden leaves, FFO, Bacon Jam, and Vintage Cheddar Cheese (£11.00). I made the right decision because this was one of the best beef burgers I have ever eaten. Although the burger was cooked to the well-done stage, the well-seasoned meat was still wonderfully succulent. I loved the cheese that had been used and thought the battered onion rings were an inspired addition. The bacon jam was unbelievably delicious, managing to be smoky, sweet and sour all at the one time. I’m not kidding – this stuff should be patented. I felt sorry for poor Jim because my audible groans of pleasure were drawing attention from fellow diners… but I was past caring!
It was difficult to imagine that anything could top the burger bliss of the previous course but little did we realise what was to come. Although a number of desserts are offered, we decided to share a Sticky Toffee Pudding (£5.00) between us. Here, the surprisingly light sponge had been drenched in the most soothingly sweet and buttery hot caramel/toffee sauce. Topped with a large scoop of well-flavoured vanilla ice-cream and some caramelised walnuts we almost came to blows over who would lick the bowl clean. I dread to think how many calories were contained in that pudding but I was quite happy to throw all inhibitions aside and like a wanton woman I totally gave myself up to the pleasures of that pudding.
I loved Harry’s Shack. I loved the location. I loved the raw wildness outside contrasted with the relaxed ambiance in the restaurant… but most of all… I loved the food. There was something so compelling about the whole experience. Restaurateur Donal Doherty and Head Chef Derek Creagh have created something really special in Harry’s Shack and I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone. Despite the blip at the beginning of our meal, service throughout was delivered in a pleasant and friendly manner and I genuinely enjoyed myself.
116 Strand Road
T: 0044 28 7083 1783
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.