The final instalment in our series set in Northern Ireland covers the real reason behind our visit in the first place – the wedding of our friends Steve and Gina – now one month ago today.
It has been almost three years since the last time we covered a wedding in one of our reviews, that of my mother and stepfather. While their venue was all very nice, the sheer luxury of the surroundings at the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel in Bangor eclipse it tenfold or more. The hotel forms only part of a massive estate, which also includes a golf course, so it already comes highly recommended. But when there is not time for a round of 18, however unfortunately, it also proves an amazing venue for a wedding breakfast and reception.
Before the ceremony itself, we – the groom’s party and a few of the bride’s family – stopped in the village of Crawfordsburn for a drink in the second choice for reception venue – The Old Inn (bar interior pictured). A beautiful hotel, to give the most straightforward description, and in possession of a bar that I would have been more than happy to run myself, it was just so cosy. The sort of room one could imagine country gentlemen sitting by the fire hidden behind a huge broadsheet checking the stocks and shares, a bell of brandy on the side table. I can’t go on too much about it right now, since we were only there for the one drink, but if I return to Northern Ireland, a proper review of this place is on the list.
Following the marriage and the confetti-throwing, the official party could get started, beginning with a sparkling rosé and canapé reception (pictured left and right) in the hotel’s downstairs lounge, complete with a hired string quartet. As well as the gorgeous shortbread biscuits, which were actually to accompany the tea and coffee, the canapé selection consisted of Smoked Salmon on some Irish brown bread, Chicken Mousse and, my personal favourite, a Bacon and Brie Crostini. Definitely more imaginative than anything we used to serve in my hotel days.
I call it a Wedding Breakfast out of respect for tradition; The Wedding Breakfast was so-named due to the Eucharistic fashion of the bride and groom fasting up until their wedding day, and thus the meal on the day itself is literally breaking the fast. With the past two days in mind, fasting was never going to be an option! After four hilarious speeches and toasts, food was served, starting with the starters: either a Leek and Potato Soup or a Bruschetta of Cherry Vine Tomatoes, Red Onions, Brie and Basil Pesto (see pictured).
Given it’s an Italian dish, it was a little odd in my view to find a French cheese like Brie on a Bruschetta – though traditionally one never sees cheese on a Bruschetta anyway, so they had already diverted from the original. It was a wedding after all, and bread-and-tomatoes doesn’t really constitute much in the way of luxury (nor does it sound as good). So it was a welcome addition of flavour, and it was as tasty as I expected – very much so.
When you have worked in hotels for as long or longer than I have, and indeed reviewing restaurants and hotels for as long as I have, you begin to pick up on trends and patterns, particularly on things that chefs frequently get wrong. In England, it a rare thing indeed to find a meat dish of any decent quality. So I was looking at my Slow-braised Shoulder of Lamb with Boulangère Potatoes and Thyme & Garlic Jus (see pictured) with an air of scepticism. Dear God, I was wrong. The lamb’s flesh fell apart between the fork prongs – that’s the beauty of slow-cooking. The potatoes were another pleasant surprise, soft and creamy rather than tasting as though they had been reheated in the microwave half-a-dozen times before serving, and while the thyme and garlic jus was all very tasty, I needed the little balsamic tang of some mint sauce – however ashamed I am to admit that. The other dishes on offer for entrées were Chicken Breast with fondant potatoes, baby onions and pancetta or a Plum and Ginger-roasted Vegetable Samosa.
My favourite dish in terms of presentation was definitely dessert. When it comes to puddings, the Northern Irish really know what they’re doing, I have discovered in running this series for the last month. Deferring from the Deconstructed White Chocolate and Honeycomb Cheesecake, however tempting that may sound, I opted for the Deluxe Chocolate Dessert (see pictured), served as you can see on a very attractive glass platter. It’s a pudding of four parts, consisting of a chocolate-covered strawberry, a Valrhona Chocolate Mousse, a Chocolate Brownie, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Right up my street as I am sure you can appreciate. The brownie was soft and moist and melted into the chocolate sauce immaculately, and the chocolate mousse was so light I could have eaten a few-dozen more afterwards. If anything, I have been more compelled to hold my next function as a chocoholics evening, with this dessert serving as inspiration for the canapés. Even something as simple as a chocolate-covered strawberry is addictive to taste as it is attractive to eat.
This all took place in the upstairs function room, complete with its own, very comfortable, lounge-bar and balcony. Remembering once again that we’re much further north than Bournemouth or Southampton, it was considerably colder, to an extent that there was even the brief flurry of snow, which could only add to the magic of the day. Aside from that, the rest of the evening is more than a bit of a blur, in all honesty.
Whether you’re native to Northern Ireland or you fancy marrying abroad but not too abroad, then in all seriousness the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel should be on the top of your potential venue list, if not for the deluxe surroundings and gorgeous food, then for the excellent and (need I add) tolerant staff.
This series will not be my last visit to the country, as I have so many places I still want to visit, plus a round of golf on the Clandeboye’s course wouldn’t come amiss either. It all comes highly recommended, though not for the faint-livered.