“We’re out of lobster” are not the words you want to hear when you pull a comfortable plastic chair up to your table at a seafood shack on the beach, a mere scuttle from the edge of the ocean. Not when, somehow, you missed visiting it on your trip to Donegal last year, and took the precaution of reserving a table this year, because Native Seafood & Scran, a casual eating spot in Portstewart, is very much on the list of places to eat when you’re holidaying in the northwest.
It’s also perilously close to the sea: severe storm damage meant that Stevie McCarry and his wife, Rebekah, lost everything earlier this year. No company will insure them, something they discovered after they’d signed a five-year lease last summer for the premises, which was previously used to sell inflatable lilos and beachballs. With support from the community, they were back up and running within weeks.
It is essentially a large shed with shutters that come down on three sides. A fish counter and open kitchen run along the back wall, chalkboards list specials and drink prices, and filament bulbs, trailing plants and a corrugated roof with rusty patches make it look like a hipster’s dream. It operates as a fishmonger, a coffee shop and a casual fish restaurant.
There’s a basket of blankets for chilly evenings (not required when we visit), and wine glasses and a wine cooler are immediately brought to the table to chill our BYO bottle of white wine. The corkage is a mere £2.50 (€2.95).
Row Wines review: A new restaurant offering a rare thing – small plates and a glass of wine that won’t break the bank
Had I paid more attention to its Instagram account I would have realised that a lunch booking is advisable if you want to be in with a flying chance of ordering the lobster roll or lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. But there is plenty more on this daily changing menu, as McCarry takes the ferry to Greencastle, in Co Donegal, four times a week to buy whatever fish is landed.
From the small-plates section of the menu, tempura Padrón peppers (£6.50) are very tasty, cooked so that they are still crunchy, with earthy green pyrazines coming through, and just a touch of curry spice from the turmeric in the light batter. The house-made Scotch-bonnet chilli jam that comes with them is right up there on the Scoville scale, so just the tiniest bit is required.
Lough Foyle oysters (£3.50 each) come in three options: classic, with Tabasco and lemon; or, as we order, one with an Asian dressing and another with a Buckfast granita, the iodine flavours of the firm oysters working nicely with both treatments.
The chowder here is something of a signature dish, served in a bread bowl of Ursa Minor’s very fine sourdough. There’s been a run on the chowder, and the bread is mostly gone, so we get ours with two generous chunks of bread on the side, which is as much as I’d be able to eat. Regardless, £2 is knocked off the usual price of £14.50. Quite a lot of work has gone into bringing layers of flavour to this chowder. Fish bones have been roasted to make a very good stock. This then is built up with some finely diced organic vegetables, a good splash of white wine, white fish and mussels. With a drizzle of tarragon oil on top, it is truly beautiful.
Our other main course is equally impressive, again one of the dishes you’ll frequently find on the menu. Kentucky fried monkfish (£13.50) in a burger bun, I soon discover, is the best possible way to eat this fish. The crunch the addition of oatmeal brings to this seasoned coating is very clever, encasing steaming-hot fish that is tender and moist and topped with home-made ranch dressing and pickled red cabbage.
There are no desserts as such, but the selection of pastries from Vittles Bakehouse are worth investigating, particularly the very well made pastel de nata (£3.40).
I adore seafood shacks, and what the McGarrys do at Native Seafood is something I would love to see replicated around the coastal stretches of our island. The fish is just-landed fresh, the cooking is clever, the service is warm, and the price is something that most people can afford.
The drive along the Antrim coast is also one of the most spectacular in the country. Just be sure to get there early if you plan on eating lobster.
Dinner for two was £48.90 (€57.75).
The verdict: Exquisitely fresh fish cooked simply with a bit of creative spark
Facilities: Public toilets nearby, clean and perfunctory
Music: Background, Roisin Murphy and dance
Food provenance: Greencastle fish, Portrush Bay lobster, Rhee River Organics vegetables, Ursa Minor sourdough
Vegetarian options: It’s all about the fish here, so options limited with small plates of corn, Padrón peppers and chips
Wheelchair access: Room accessible with nearby accessible public toilets