Is Derry/Londonderry worthy of the 2013 UK Capital of Culture? If Brown’s Restaurant on the city’s Waterside is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes.
Whatever you might think of the Peace Bridge, Ebrington Barracks and the multi-million pound cash injection of public money to keep the capital of culture party rolling along for the next ten months, the simple fact is that Ian Orr, chef/patron of Brown’s, has created a restaurant so good it alone makes the city worth going to. It would go down well in London, never mind Derry.
His restaurant oozes effortless quality the second you open the door: the linen, the sparkling crystal glasses, the comfort, lighting, subdued décor and the delicate welcoming smells of cooking greeting you before you sit down. No rancid whiff of old deep frying oil here.
The unpretentious split-level dining room and bar echo the mood of the much-missed Shanks Restaurant where Ian began his climb to the top over 10 years ago.
He picked up the late great Robbie Millar’s attention to detail and he also captured the attitude which was one of gracious fun and relaxed enjoyment, one in which the diner felt safe in the belief that everything put on the table in front of them was quality.
I’d heard a lot about Brown’s in the three years since Ian took over following a few years in London’s top River Café, the same place Jamie Oliver kicked off his career. So expectations were high. Well, actually, they weren’t too high because I suffer from that Belfast disease of Derry Dismissivitis. It’s a chronic condition which accounts for why many people not from Derry are so unfairly dismissive of the city.
One meal in Brown’s should be enough to cure anyone of DD because it is one of the top five restaurants in the country. Right now, it’s my favourite in Northern Ireland.
Ian is only 30 yet the maturity of his cooking, bold matchings of surprising ingredients, creating unusual yet instantly classic combinations, is up there with Joery Castel of the Boat House and Niall McKenna at James St South. This is fine dining but without the lah-de-dah. It’s a very Derry interpretation of sophistication. And at £16.50 for a three-course lunch, there should be queues all the way back across the Craigavon Bridge to the Guildhall.
Busy on this Friday lunchtime, Brown’s offered a menu of apparently simple and straightforward dishes. Closer inspection of the menu revealed that there was far more to it. Tea smoked duck breast with spinach and hazelnut puree, plum jelly and mushroom; Portavogie prawns wrapped in Kataifi pastry, mango, curry and cauliflower or red wine and radicchio risotto with goat’s cheese and spinach roulade. My Derry guide today is Paula McIntyre who once again has
stepped into the breach left by the temporary unavailability of the advisor. She’s soon in a deep reverie having tasted the amuse gueule of creamy sweet potato soup with crushed walnuts and a spoonful of olive oil so grassy and green making magic in this little cup.
She’s equally transfixed by the ensuing ribbon pasta with venison starter which has depth and big, saucy flavours. My prawn roll on a bed of curried cauliflower is magnificent. The pastry is like a bird’s nest of pale crispy twigs tightly wound around the succulent prawns within. It is outstanding. I said to Paula she could shoot me now and I’d die happy.
What followed was heavenly and I acknowledge I am now at grave risk of sounding utterly disarmed, seduced and enthralled, but I was. When faced with a choice of turbot with smoked celeriac milk puree, lettuce and cauliflower beignet, chargrilled free range pork fillet, braised pork and soy sauce and honey or roast breast of Cherry Valley duck with cherry tapenade, pear puree and bacon crumble, I surrendered and let the kitchen make the choice for me. Along came a well-cooked rump of lamb, pink and firm, with smoked tomato puree, yoghurt and grilled scallion. All memorable and perfectly textured. The smoked tomato puree released thrilling hints of Clan pipe tobacco.
Paula’s cod came with the same garnish and we agreed both dishes were triumphs.
Desserts of chocolate fondant with blackberry soup and pistachio puree for her and white chocolate tiramisu made us surrender all critical faculties and at this stage I had run out of gush.
For £16.50, Derry people have possibly the best three-course meal on offer in the entire north. This makes it easily worth the £30 of diesel I spent getting there. I’m going back as soon as I can.
Three-course lunch x 2 £33
Bottle Peroni £3.50
Large sparkling water £4.50
Espresso x 2 £5