A couple of attempts to find a decent place to eat in Omagh have resulted in a modest little restaurant, Vanilla, reaching these pages. It wasn’t easy.
Some from the town spoke of Grant’s as an excellent steak house and others mentioned Rue as a good brasserie-like bar restaurant. I had tried the latter earlier in the year and had been disappointed.
As a reluctant Tyrone fan with a sense of fair play, I didn’t want to make the county’s first restaurant review to appear here a bad one. So it was with some consolation last week that I stepped into the austere yet cosy interior of Vanilla, run by husband-and-wife team Hayden and Clodagh Gamble.
The place looks like a lightly converted and repainted lounge bar, the sort you’d always find in provincial towns throughout Ireland. There’s a tiny bar, sure enough, and there are the first signs of something a bit more ambitious than usual — displayed on the bar are bottles of Strangford Lough brewery beers including Leg Biter and BareLegs Brew, both highly regarded by people with beards.
Then there’s a blackboard with today’s specials and, within seconds of entering, the enveloping attention of Clodagh herself. Her breathless enthusiasm is never tiresome and the need to please very evident. It’s a lovely old-fashioned inn-keeper’s kind of welcome and soon I am sitting at the table with my pal, local man Michael. When you’re from Armagh and going out to a bar or restaurant in Tyrone you need a guy like Michael riding shotgun.
Clodagh’s explanations are operatic. There’s a lunch menu, which is different from the dinner one, there are specials and various alternatives and if there’s nothing you like, just hum it and we’ll make it for you.
A starter of seafood gratin arrives. Packed with bite-sized chunks of salmon and a couple of big prawns, the gratin is beautifully seasoned and textured. It’s dry, crumbling, crust is toasted and golden and is appetising. It promises softer pleasures within. The creamy mornay sauce is a bit too runny, however, and could have been left to reduce a little longer. Nonetheless, the light cheese flavours are rich and satisfying and the portion generous.
Michael is on the salad with bacon. There is a light dressing on it, but not enough. He is offered more but in a fit of self-denial turns it down. Being that light on the dressing means he can enjoy the Chablis with no fear of clashing wine with vinegar, he suggests. Because his comment amounts to the most interesting thing anyone from Tyrone has ever said to me about food, I shut up. His curry and rice arrives and, as he’s ordered it quite hot, I ask if it’s all right for him. He says it’s spot on and as good a curry as he’s enjoyed anywhere. Even though there isn’t a single drop of chutney, not one shattering poppadom or a bit of naan, he’s keen on the dish.
My chicken forestiere arrives, a large, sliced breast under a blanket of dark gravy. Thank god for the gravy because those big chicken breasts are like a jail sentence. I look at them and think of the amount of life I am about to waste cutting through the endless white cliffs of meat.
But on this occasion the gravy is a spectacularly deep and tasty source of joy and anything that appears slightly dry is immediately imbued in the stuff. I ask for more and it ends up blessing the rest of the dinner, the roast root vegetables, the champ and even the chips. I prepare a sneaky, unofficial gravy chip on the side of my plate and can honestly say Vanilla makes the best. Of course, you can’t ask Clodagh for a gravy chip — she’ll kick you out like Isolde in Wagner’s epic tragedy. But do ask for the forestiere sauce and a side of chips because they are quite brilliant. Large, irregular and crispy — the chips are a little bit of heaven on earth.
A fancy finish with crème brulee and apple fritters is equally impressive. The crème has been made very well — not too viscous and not overcooked. The fritters would easily pass muster in a Cajun gumbo shack in Louisiana. With the crackling crisp fritters, the apples inside have been reduced almost to a compote while their sweet brittle shells thaw the ice cream accompanying them.
A chat with Hayden after lunch reveals his love for game. Snipe, woodcock, pigeon — he does it all and he can’t wait for the season to start. Today’s lunch has been great — Vanilla only opens for lunch on a Friday and Sunday — but an evening of locally caught game sounds irresistible. The robustness of his cooking is evident in the forestiere gravy, the chips and the fritters.
I wonder what he will do with the game ...
Desserts x 2 £9.90
Coffees x 2 £3.60
25 Castle Street Omagh BT78 1DD.
Tel: 028 8225 7733