The UK City of Culture 2013 continues to aim high with its ongoing series of visiting events including the top-of-the-range and always controversial Turner Prize announcement this autumn, the City of Derry Regatta and the Big Tickle comedy festival. Who would have thought Derry would have an appetite for posh art, sailing and laughter?
It's always been a standard wind-up east of the Bann that Derry is the gateway to Belfast, but the wind of change is blowing strong and to prove that 2013 isn't just about imported cultural events, Derry's new cultural industrialists are being taken seriously. Who knew Willie Doherty from Derry has been twice shortlisted for the Turner Prize? And who thought there were any more musicians from the city after Phil Coulter, Dana and the Undertones? (Paul Brady, Cathal Breslin, Marcas O Murchu, Carole Sproule ...).
Oh yes. It's all change up in the UK City of Culture and that includes eating out.
A recent review of Ian Orr's excellent restaurant on the Waterside, Brown's, indicated that quality and the appreciation of quality had taken root in Derry. Not only is Ian Orr a master restaurateur, but his efforts are rewarded by an appreciative and supportive base of regular clients.
Now he has opened Brown's in Town at the city centre end of the Strand Road. It's a notch down from the fine dining levels of its big brother on Bond's Hill, but it is nonetheless a quality destination and all the more democratic for that.
The dining room is a beautiful, modern mix of creams, browns and dark and light timber shades; there are leather upholstered horseshoe booths and soft chairs and plenty of space. It is as welcoming as any old-fashioned café and staffed with professionals who know how to make these places work.
Where Brown's on the Waterside provokes incredulity with three-course lunches of exceptional standard for only £16.50, the city centre Brown's comes in even lower.
A pulled pork and tomato cassoulet with grilled sourdough bread starter was £5, while a risotto of smoked salmon, peas, broad beans, parmesan and lemon salad was only £6.
As a treat we were offered a cup of the soup of the day – leek and potato – as an amuse bouche. This had all the hallmarks of international-class cooking; depth and resonance of flavour, clear notes of leeks and potatoes and a savouriness that made me regret not having ordered a proper big bowl of the stuff.
The risotto was equally up to Bond's Hill standard, having achieved a lovely warm creaminess in which the sweet and fresh peas and broad beans stood out.
The cassoulet was sweet and not salty and while the consistency, colour and texture of the stew was very appetising, the expected deep, pulled porky flavours failed to get through the sugariness.
Other starters on the lunch menu, to give you an idea, included crispy egg, smoked bacon, chicken mayo and organic leaves and a salad of blue cheese, candied walnuts, chargrilled chickory and truffle aioli, both a fiver.
Of the six choices among the mains, all had a strong appeal. But my inner white-trash love for anything in pastry could not keep me away from the chicken and chorizo sausage roll with piccalilli. This was not as heavy an affair as it sounds. The chicken and chorizo were chunky bits rather than blended like sausage meat and the piccalilli had all the edgy tang of a barrel of high-octane acid drops. It meant having fun balancing the right amount of sausage roll to the precise volume of piccalilli to achieve the perfect combination. This was so entertaining I insisted my companion try it. She got it right first time and swore to come back just to try this.
Her chargrilled pork loin with tomato and cannelloni beans on toast also paid tribute to the white-trash tradition that requires brown sauce. Only this was homemade brown sauce. Ian Orr should bottle this. It's everything you wish for when you pour your HP over your bangers, black pudding or pies. It's tangier, sweeter, spicier and more savoury than HP; like HP but extra large and grown up. And there's something about it being Brown's Sauce.
We could have had the burger with tomato chutney, red onion, smoked bacon and Waterford Blaa bun, or a steak sandwich on homemade bread, with wholegrain mustard mayo, rocket or Brown's fish pie. None of these is more than £8.75.
Desserts at £3.95 mean any thoughts of that beach body are going to have to be postponed, and the roast hazelnut meringue with pineapple compote and vanilla whipped cream could have been straight out of a Parisian patisserie.
Brown's in Town is just what Derry city centre needs. Judging by the diners in for lunch on this Tuesday (a three-course set dinner for £19.95 is also on in the evenings), the appetite for good food, service and comfort is as strong here as it is anywhere. If Ian Orr keeps going like this, Derry will be famous for its culture, its music and its food.
Pork loin £7.95
Sausage roll £7.95
Truffle cake £3.95
Strand Road, Londonderry.
Tel: 028 71362889