Winning the title of UK City of Culture 2013 has delivered a much-needed slap on Londonderry’s back.
The cradle of northern civilization and its many identities has struggled with a split personality for generations and news of the title seems to have brought a unity of spirit to the citizenry that the subsequent bomb attack seems only to have consolidated all the more.
Derry does have two sides: on the one hand it has produced brilliant musicians who made it to the top of the international league (Dana, Phil Coulter, The Undertones) — on the other it has suffered economic devastation through a relentless bombing campaign and mass unemployment.
Derry brought the Civil Rights movement to Ireland, was the first to create a power-sharing local authority and unleashed on the world the Nerve Centre, a unique incubator for raw talent that has become the first step for many young wans on the ladder to the creative industries. Yet there lurk homo-phobic, sectarian and racist elements in the city that haunt Derry’s enviable reputation for tolerance and fair play and occasionally cast a shadow over its huge social achievements.
It is also, within those unbreached walls, an intensely beautiful city with the charm and mystery of a Tuscan hill town and the music and nightlife of a New England seaport.
Derry’s highest blessing is its bars and restaurants where common ground — music, drink and food — are available to all. The one that seems to be held in the closest affection by Derry diners is Halo. Ask anyone in the city where you might eat decently and, most times, people will say Halo (and Browns on the Waterside).
Of course, Halo has its own split personality: the front door at ground level offers as much of a warm welcome as the A&E ward at Altnagelvin, but climb those stairs (or get in that lift) and head to the first floor and there you will find yourself in a New York loft — all high ceilings, windows, iron pillars and rough wooden floors. Keep going up in the lift to the next floor and you’re back in another ward, this time more akin to a private hospital, comfortable yet paradoxically spartan. God knows how this mix of styles has arisen, but in many ways it adds to the charm of Halo and to its sense of Derry-ness.
Halo owners, the McAllister family, boast an enviable DNA in catering. This is the same family who owned the Leprechaun bar, which was as well known to the city as the Morning Star is to Belfast. And on this particular week night, Halo was busy. Staff were friendly, if a little stretched.
Menus were extensive and appetizing, with choices galore: cheap, middling, dear, dish of the day, specials and in-between snacky things. And there was ice-cold Heineken on tap, something that has an irresistible appeal.
There are two sides to Halo (what did I tell you?): the democratic Pantry housed in this atmospheric loft-like first floor and the Grill, which is fancier. We only got to see the Pantry but were offered both menus, and very appetising they are too.
There are all sorts for all sorts: simple soup with home-baked wheaten bread, fancy fish dishes (salmon fillet with artichoke risotto and sauce vierge, brill, smoked haddock) and among lots of snacky things, venison, rib of beef, burgers and fish and chips. It’s fodder for the family and, sure enough, this Wednesday evening saw the Pantry abuzz with three or four generations of people.
When a restaurant captures this kind of audience it’s as much to do with mood and service as it is with quality of food. All three aspects are good, with flashes of brilliance. The service is attentive and there’s a distinct feeling they want to please. And when the opening duck spring rolls arrived (a wee bit pretentiously sliced in the diagonal and stood erect on the plate) in the first salvo, the two of us realised that behind the look lies real substance. Possibly the most generous duck spring rolls ever to grace a plate in Northern Ireland, these were packed with tender shredded confit duck meat, packed with flavour and accompanied by a decently dressed little salad.
The smoked haddock with poached egg and curried potato was another delight. The light curry potatoes provide a glimpse of glamour and excitement to what is otherwise strictly comfort food. It’s a great dish and worth the £16 asking price. The side order of broccoli could have done without the béarnaise, which was a bit pasty.
Throughout this pleasant time, the restaurant was full of movement. People were greeting each other, going over to each others’ tables, while others get in and out of a lift. I went up just to have a look and found a room called the Halo Lazy Lounge. Details of this will be revealed in a Grill review later.
Before heading back to Belfast, the white chocolate cheesecake beckoned. An enormous slice, like a carved chunk of Alpine rock face, was delivered beneath a thick sprinkling
of dessicated coconut. It was extraordinary — the best I ever had. Light, fabulously tasty and almost foam-like, the body of the cheesecake was exquisite. Its base, just the right side of robust and crumbly biscuit, playing the perfect foil.
Halo is a restaurant of charm, willingness and character. The echo of high heels on the oak floorboards and the general hum of light gossip makes it a place in which one wants to linger. Sadly, we couldn’t. We’ll be back, though.Duck rolls x 2 £12
Smoked Haddock x 2 £32
Pint Heineken £2.90
Bottle Becks £2.90
Bottle T’air D’oc red wine £15
Peach tart £4.95