Imagine standing in a wooden shack as a winter wind blasts through, trying to picture a restaurant in a place held together with salt and doggedness. Now it’s July. The sand is hot. A lightening storm is rolling across the horizon. Your restaurant is hopping. Everyone from babies to pensioners is tucking in to food from the sea, field and garden. Welcome to Harry’s Shack on Portstewart strand, a pinch-yourself-it’s-so-special kind of place.
Donegal men Donal Doherty and chef Derek Creagh opened the restaurant in a National Trust beach shack last August. It's all weathered boards and sedum roof on the grassy dunes overlooking an epically gorgeous beach. The Shack is an offshoot of Harry's in Brigend, the Donegal restaurant that served my meal of the year last year.
Inside, what was an office space has been decked out by clever Belfast designers Oscar & Oscar in salvaged timber and crisp fresh paint, more chic than shack. A wood-fired stove sits in the middle for winter days. Bulbs are strung pier-style from the ceiling. Outside there are picnic tables for coffee and cake. The menu is divided into the crowd pleasers and dishes with a bit more stretch to them.
Whitebait come tucked in a newspaper cone, floured and fried so their faces and tails are hidden in a slightly spicy crunch. The one that nearly gets away, trapped in the bottom, is a treat as good as the chocolate lump in the bottom of a Cornetto. A small pot of marie rose sauce for dunking sits alongside a clump of mizuna leaves, the like of which I’ve only tasted when I’ve grown them myself.
Next up in duck egg blue Moville Pottery bowls are more of those leaves and fluffy mash alongside a plate of whole megrim, a flat oval white fish fried so its pale skin is a golden skein of butteriness. It’s sprinkled with charred cauliflower, crescents of courgette and teeny brown shrimp. To finish there’s a butter-smooth panna cotta with two fat juicy raspberries marooned on top.
I sat beside the table they call the Jay Rayner seat, by the stove where the long-haired one ate last winter and loved it. Prices have edged up slightly since then but it’s still more than great value. The BYOB option takes the sting out of the sterling rate.
Harry’s Shack is not just for summer. They open five days a week in the winter when the beach is a spectacular canvas to the food served up inside the cosy timbers. A simple idea beautifully done. Cooking just-landed fish and just-picked vegetables has turned a humble beach shack into a spectacular restaurant.
Lunch for one with coffee and orange juice came to £35.20 (€50.52)
Often it's a case of the better the view the worse the food, but Harry's Shack is a beach beaut. It's the top of the list in my ten best seaside food experiences around Ireland. Here's the other nine
Cléire Goats ice cream, Cape Clear Island
Teddy's ice cream might sound a bit tame when you consider milking a goat before eating a tub of goat ice cream on Cape Clear Island off Baltimore in west Cork. Visitors can have a go at milking one of Ed Harper's 30 British Alpine nannies between 10am and 12pm. Does the ice cream taste goaty? "Not to me, but I'm used to it," Ed says. There is some cow's cream mixed in to make it nice and creamy. It comes in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, rum and raisin, and mint. Cléire Goats, Cape Clear Island 087 7973056 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jolly Roger, Sherkin Island
If you can't make it to Cape Clear, Ed's goat ice cream is sold in the Jolly Roger Pub on neighbouring Sherkin Island. Chef John Paul Milot is also hoping to have a food truck on the beach in Sherkin selling ice cream, crepes and galettes. The Jolly Roger and beach food truck, Sherkin Island (028) 20662
O'Sullivan's Bar, Crookhaven
Third generation bar owner Dermot O'Sullivan promises money back to anyone who's had a better crab sandwich than the ones he serves in O'Sullivan's Bar in Crookhaven, west Cork. The crab is fished between Crookhaven and Schull. In mid-August the local shrimp season starts, fished from the water in front of the pier where you sit to eat. O'Sullivans Bar, Crookhaven, Main St Crookhaven, Co Cork (028) 35319
Fish and seafood exporter Xavier Legrix opens his restaurant every summer. L'Escale is a little bit of France on the pier in Schull complete with French pop radio and world-class grilled lobster straight from the tank. It's a seasonal chance for locals and tourists to taste the best of Irish seafood, without having to go to a French supermarket to buy it. L'Escale, The Pier Schull, Co Cork (028) 28599
O'Neill's The Point Bar, Reenard
Bridie and Michael O'Neill have run O'Neill's The Point Bar in Reenard just outside Cahersiveen in Kerry for 26 years. "I'm out front. Michael's tied to the leg of the cooker," Bridie explains. "There's a wall between us. It works better that way." They've plenty of tables outside beside the small harbour where the ferry runs to Valentia Island. The hit of the summer is their seafood special of local hake, squid, crab, smoked and barbecued salmon, shrimp and lobster. No reservations unless you're in a wheelchair. O'Neills The Point Bar, Reenard, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry (066) 9472165
Shells of Strandhill You don't have to be a surfer to eat in Shells of Strandhill but you can admire the skills of the neoprene clad ones from the window as you tuck into the hearty post-surf food. The place was so busy when I rang to see what's new they couldn't hear what I was saying. You'll probably want to bring home a copy of their cookbook Surf Cafe Living to take a bit of the bleached out and chilled out surfer dude food culture home. Shells Cafe and Little Shop, Seafront Strandhill, Co Sligo (071) 912 2938
Stoop Your Head, Skerries
They've just finished a new outdoor area beside the Stoop Your Head seafood restaurant on Skerries Harbour with cushioned seats and lighting . A local secret is to ask for scampi. It's only on the menu on a Friday, as a special. But if you ask nicely for it any other day of the week you might get lucky. In unapologetically Irish fashion it comes with a choice of four potato options: chips, baby potatoes, savoury potatoes or mash. Stoop Your Head, Harbour Road, Skerries, Co Dublin (01) 849 2085
Moran's Oyster Cottage, Kilcolgan
Moran's Oyster Cottage is a pub where combining two great Irish foods – brown soda bread and fresh oysters – has drawn the crowds for nearly five decades. It was huddle and run weather the day we visited but the tables outside have plenty of room and a gorgeous view of the water. Moran's Oyster Cottage Kilcolgan, Co Galway (091) 796113
O'Dowd's Seafood Bar and Restaurant, Roundstone
Generations of the O'Dowd family have run their famous bar and restaurant in Roundstone. They've added a coffee shop two doors down recently which also has a view of the harbour. Biggest hits with the summer visitors are the crab claws, chowder and smoked salmon. O'Dowd's Seafood Bar and Restaurant, Roundstone, Co Galway (095) 35809