Aged pottery and elaborately carved mirrors are set against a dark grey, painted tongue-in-groove backdrop. Voluptuous dining vignettes in the Gallery window and the tall Library hallway with its oversized stone fireplace form the expansive entrance to The French Rooms in Bushmills.
While I love dining in new places of all styles as part of a full day-out, I also revel in deconstructing everything from the ingredients to customer service to the decor. The style begins at The French Rooms Bushmills with a substantial but elegant, pandemic-compliant washing station with all the required accoutrements and a polite invitation to wash your hands before proceeding.
The Vibe at The French Rooms
The French Rooms does not so much vibe as exist, much like all things French. Enjoy it if you want; but, it needs neither your presence nor patronage. The reception area and bar masks the scenes that continue on behind a 3D fireplace wall, beyond which again is the main seating area – a clever, intimate arrangement of booths, smaller tables, a nook by an open fire (it was 4 degrees on the day we visited) with a few scattered larger, round tables.
A bright waitress whisked us past antiqued serving platters arranged on the walls with a splash of humour. We were seated alongside tables that were already set and expectant with silverware and napkins.
Even on a chilly Friday in April, a steady stream of understated, stylish patrons – a mixture of ladies who lunch, another few couples and a grown-up family group arrived and were seated with familiarity. This is not a place to visit une seule fois.
Brunch Eats All-Day-Breakfasts for Brunch!
Another friendly waitress took our order with a knowing reassurance that we’d leave impressed, something that is more often than not lacking in unmotivated serving dullards that endure their shifts across many other eating establishments in NI. She didn’t bat an eyelid at my dining companion’s two-brunch order. We knew the food would be good.
Glancing around the space, I noted the typically French fleur-de-lis symbol of French royal heraldry on everything from the Pay Here sign. Hanging wine glasses and an impressive walk-in wine fridge area lazily accommodated the elaborate wine planning discussions at a nearby table. Attention to detail was paid to the nth degree. Even the traditional Norn Iron staple, here found in the loos, a Roman blind, had a French touch, with fresh linen fabric but nonchalant bows.
Brunch has moved up my consciousness from the shoulder-padded harpies of 80s movies who ate nothing of their Caesar (“hold the dressing”) to an essential treat during less frantic working weeks. The French Rooms has gone a step further than the tired ‘breakfast fry or filled panini served-until-12’ routine for a more leisurely 11:00-14:30 arrangement. We arrived at 11:30.
What About the Food?
The menu was pleasingly full of curious flavour combinations, a delight for those of us who do conduct a conscientious mid-bite ingredient and texture analysis. But, it was recognisable, having ditched the prétention of the Fawlty-towers dining room.
We had three brunches:
- French Toast Croissant – a well made croissant cannot be underestimated, since it must be rendered flaky with butter, not incompetence. This novel version was a dipped in ‘frothy egg’ and filled with bacon and a fried egg – great packing for a long beach walk.
- French onion soup – this arrived in a rustic mini-tureen, and was unusually tomatoey but typically sweet and laden with sodden, sourdough croutons backed up with a stash of crisp, crusted, chewy extras.
- Tarte Flambée – this is an Alsatian speciality that starts with thin and crispy dough base spread with crème fraîche and lardons. Something of a recent convert to mushrooms I tried a forestière version that came topped with the sweetest mushrooms and extra Gruyère the shape of whose very letters takes me back to the late evening canal-side fondue and white house wine carafes of Annecy. I added a Mediterranean salad that came with juicy olives, goats’ cheese cubes, dressed rocket, red onions, and an unexpected scattering of fragrant nettle leaves.
- Earl grey
- A lightly fizzy Co. Armagh apple and blackcurrant
My dining companion commented idly on the pleasing look of the rough cut sugar cubes.
- Petits Fours
- Chocolate Fondant accompanied by Morelli’s hazelnut ice-cream
- ‘Ma Cools Shake’ – vanilla ice-cream whipped together with Baileys Irish Cream
What Else is There to Do in Bushmills?
Ask anyone about recommendations for the North Antrim or Causeway Coast and you’ll get all the usual recommendations of the Bushmills Distillery, Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Railway, World Heritage Site, Giant’s Causeway, and medieval Dunluce Castle.
My 1-day itinerary recommendation is:
08:00 Breakfast at The Bushmills Inn
10:00 Benone to Downhill Beach Walk
Drive another 30 minutes up the coast to Benone, taking in the stunning view through the cliffs down the steep Mussenden road. Carry on past Downhill beach along the coast road and turn right into the pristine white sands of award-winning Benone Strand. Park on the entrance to the beach, wrap up warm and walk back down the sand (right) toward Downhill Beach.
You’ll enjoy an ever-looming view of the colossal Mussenden Temple perched on the cliff above, with views of Portrush and Portstewart in the distance. Beyond the headland lies the next beach along, Castlerock, from which you can also view the other side of the temple. You’ll have to take your shoes off about 4/5 of the way there to ford the little river (Downhill Burn shown below). It starts up in the Binevenagh cliff waterfalls on your right as you walk and runs right under the road and railway behind the sand dunes then across the sand and out into the Atlantic.
Take as many pictures as you like. It’s simply impossible to take a bad one with with the seemingly larger-than-life expanse of sand, sea and sky. This easy 2.9 mile trek is especially blissful in the windier ‘shoulder’ seasons with crashing waves, though most days, you’d be best to wrap up in at least a hoodie. The Atlantic wind coming off the sea can be very chilly. Tell me if your soul isn’t better after that walk.
13:45 Gortmore Viewing Point & Irish Sea God, Manannan Mac Lir
Next, take a drive up the very steep Bishops Road and carry on just a couple of miles to Gortmore Viewing Point where you’ll find free, if windy, parking. Make sure you take in both upper and lower viewing points. The upper viewing platform is at the trig point with useful signage showing you which peaks you’re looking at. The Irish sea god, Manannan Mac Lir, stands, hands extended out to the sea. (He was once kidnapped – by an iconoclast, no doubt!)
The lower viewing point has stone bench seating and a viewing platform, providing astonishing views out over Magilligan Point, Donegal and even two of the Hebridean islands – Isley and Jura. It’s a great place for budding ornithologists too. Pack your binos!
If you’re feeling energetic, you could try the Gortmore to Hell’s Hole trail (I’ve not done it).
14:45 Mid Afternoon Munchies
Drive back down the steep Bishop’s road toward Downhill beach and then straight up the Mussenden road you came, in the direction of Castlerock/Coleraine. Make a pit-stop on your way back at any of the inexpensive cafes/coffee shops along the route:
- Sea Shed Coffee and Surf, Benone Strand (and a seasonal pop-up in Downhill Forest)
- Willow Garden Tea Room at the Pretty Crafty Design Studio and Cafe (bonus art!) – peacocks roam and honk in the garden as you brunch, magical!
- The Surf Shack, Castlerock
15:30 Mussenden Template and Downhill Demesne Estate/Downhill Forest
- If you’re up that way already, visiting the glorious Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne will nicely round off your day (enter through Lion’s Gate). There is a bonus dovecote and ice-house.
- The estate closes at 17:00, so if you run out of time, on another visit to the area, you could start instead at the Bishop’s Gate entrance to enjoy the gardens that lead up through an alternative forest trail entrance to the temple and demesne.
- If you’re not a culture-vulture or on a tight budget, take in the free Downhill Forest across the road instead.
Come Back Another Day
Admittedly, an 11am start is probably not enough time to enjoy everything at your leisure.
- You could simply follow brunch at The French Rooms with another beautiful, coastal cliff walk to try, closer to Bushmills, is the Portballintrae Causeway Loop. Start at the Beach Road carpark in Portballintrae. It is not recommend for kids as there is no rail and the trail is close to the edge.
- Or, you could start the day much earlier with breakfast instead at The Bushmills Inn.
Information on The French Rooms Bushmills
While the Maison townhouse accommodation is still open, malheureusement The French Rooms restaurant in Bushmills has now closed along with the pop-up shop that offloaded the remaining furniture, prints and other decor.
Cover image credit: blogger’s own