Chefs on Fire
Megabites journeys the length of the country to report.
In this issue, Megabites reports on what Stevie and Rebekkah are getting up to in the much-anticipated Lir, on the banks of the River Bann in Coleraine.
Then we head south, to Rosslare at the opposite end of the country, where Chris Fullam is showing that his Smokin’ Soul barbecue isn’t the only thing on fire in The Sea Rooms, in Kelly’s Resort Hotel.
Fullam’s cooking is riffing on a vividly avant garde style, whilst up north the Lir crew are wildly experimental. The two new rooms are separated by 400 kilometres, but are united in fiercely ambitious cooking.
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Stevie and Rebekkah McCarry’s story has become a restaurant myth, because it has all the vital mythical elements.
After a long search, our heroes find their ideal premises, on the bank of the River Bann, to build their heart’s dream and realise their culinary vision of Native Seafood. Then a global pandemic shuts everything down, and our pair are instantly jobless, trying to rear a young family, and with rent to pay.
No problem: they pivot to become fishmongers, buying, selling and delivering fish, whilst creating a menu that creates a whole new style of street food seafood. As work gets underway on the old boat club, they open a 10 x 6 food pod. The queues for the Seafood & Scran offering soon stretch right across the car park and, working with only two table-top fryers and a domestic oven, they are overwhelmed every single day.
Then, in 2001, they get the chance to cook at the old Pool building on the prom at Portstewart. There is a fish counter, a seafood menu that includes a monkfish burger of shattering magnificence, and mega-size crowds. They win awards, they garner acclaim.
And then one night they get hit by the perfect storm – high winds, high waves – which rip into the Pool and decimate their set-up. Native Seafood is under water.
What happens next is exactly what you hope happens next.
Their friends and fans rally round, order fish, organise pop-up evenings and food events, and Native Seafood rises from the depths, rescued at the last minute.
Back on their feet, it is time to head back to Coleraine, and their sow’s ear of a Boat Club is now the sleek silk purse known as Lir.
We’re not sure who should direct this mythic tale, this epic saga of adversity and endurance, for the cinema. But we do know that Paul Mescal is a shoo-in for the role of Stevie, whilst Paul’s co-star in Normal People, Daisy Edgar-Jones, is just right to play Rebekkah.
In real life, Lir is now the dinner incarnation of the daytime Native Seafood, which offers coffee and snacks, and a lunchtime menu. But it’s in the evening when the queer gear gets its act together, and when this crew of fish punks reveal a piscine imaginarium unlike anything else being offered in Ireland.
They create a dogfish bacon to make their own carbonara. They make a Kiev with hake. They make a garum Caesar dressing for baby gem lettuce. There is a cross-laminated monkfish sausage roll served with fermented chilli ketchup, and we have no idea how they solve the multiple technical issues that you confront when you try to make a sausage roll with fish.
Of course, they are wise restaurateurs, so you could order battered Greencastle haddock with mushy peas and hand-cut Galbraith chips, and there is a 40-day sirloin with bearnaise.
But the real drama in Lir is in the wild style dishes: their reinvention of bouillabaisse with whiting and Ursa Minor sourdough; the cod with chicken sauce; the miso-glazed monkfish with Garryhinch mushroom risotto; the crispy squid with kimchi slaw.
Their great feat is to make their experiments eminently scrumptious: Lir grub is smashing grub, as the happy hum from the crowded rooms testifies.
Lir is a culinary laboratory, with the brilliant bonus that you can eat the experiments. Stevie and Rebekkah have a proper bunch of culinary boffins working alongside them, including the brilliant Dave Loughran, famous for his Vittle Bakeshop creations, the mixologists Brendan O’Mullan and Graham Donnell, and the sommelier Clare Smyth. The service team exude charm and commitment, and Lir is nothing less than the North star.
Lir small dishes £7-£12, big dishes £16-£29.
The Sea Rooms
Chris Fullam is up for it.
“He’s in there before any of the rest of us” one of the restaurant managers at Kelly’s Resort Hotel confided to us.
You might have heard of Fullam as one of the young chefs turning up on award shortlists, or maybe you ate at Dublin’s Le Perroquet, where he ran the kitchen. He has worked in good kitchens and, for us, it’s the fact that he spent time in Dublin’s Forest Avenue that gives some clue to his style.
That style is characterised by a combination of culinary power and culinary grace, exhibited with deft potency through the series of dishes on The Sea Rooms seven-course dinner menu.
It’s there right at the start with an audacious construction: one of the two snacks is a triple tier of chicken liver parfait, resting on the most perfectly cooked shards of chicken skin biscuit we have ever eaten. It is chicken personified, multiplied and intensified, all in one tiny morsel. Never mind chicken soup for the soul, this is chicken essence for the soul.
Smart cook that he is, Fullam dials it back with the other snack, a tiny tartlet of house cured sea trout with creme fraiche, which is limpid and lovely, the curing accenting the sweet salinity of the trout.
This duality is in play throughout dinner: a seaweed sourdough bread, for example, comes with two butters: one of smoked butter, one of smoked bacon butter. He counterpoints scallop ceviche with smoked oyster emulsion, and fetches up Crowe’s Farm smoked bacon with Comté for his agnolotti. Tarragon and caper work together in the sauce served with monkfish, whilst red onion and Madeira give sweet heft to a perfectly cooked fillet of Dexter beef.
It’s apparent after just a few bites that Fullam has full grasp of the customised Smokin’ Soul grill, built for the restaurant last year by the local Wexford grill masters. He uses the grill to smoke oysters for the smoked oyster emulsion: he uses it to barbecue monkfish and its companion of burnt leeks. He bakes carrots in the embers – sensational carrots – and the use of smoke and flame is pervasive but never overpowering.
It’s also apparent that Fullam is reveling in the challenge of running a brand new enterprise on the hallowed turf of Kelly’s Hotel, an enthusiasm shared by his young team. The room is get-out-of-here gorgeous and yet, despite its arch modernism, it fits into the meshwork of Kelly’s as if it’s always been there.
The combination of Chris Fullam’s seductive food in this slinky space is pretty much as good as you could hope for, but it’s not all you will find at The Sea Rooms. If you choose the wine pairing to partner the dinner menu, for instance, you will drink stonking wines from Burgundy, imported directly by Bill Kelly himself: Dexter beef with wild mushrooms and a glass of the 2018 Chateau de Monthelie would be a pretty fine death row choice for any food lover.
At €70 for 7 courses, the dinner menu is also exceptional value for money, and none of the main courses at lunch costs more than €18.50. Which leads us to suspect that getting a reservation is going to be the most cherished trophy in the sunny South-East in 2023.
Tasting menu €70, 3-course menu €55. Open Wed-Sun lunch, Fri & Sat dinner. Bar open Tue-Sun.