Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Uluru
16 Market Street, Armagh. Tel: 028 3751 8051
Armagh may be the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, but this has not saved it from the economic ravages of the 21st century. It has two magnificent cathedrals, but shops have shut, inward investment is scarce and there's not much business compared to Tijuana, the bustling A1 border town 17 miles away. There's no money in religion.
Having grown up in Armagh, I know how beautiful and elegant are those Georgian streets and how committed are its citizens to reviving it. The task of injecting commercial and cultural life into the city must sometimes seem like nailing jelly to a wall.
Armagh was always ascending and declining. St Patrick set up his church there just as the last embers of Celtic civilisation fizzled out in the fifth century. King Brian Boru is buried there, having declared Armagh the religious capital of Ireland in the 11th century, but the monastery he supported soon disappeared.
Archbishop Robinson transformed the city some 600 years later into a scientific research centre and place of learning with the new-fangled observatory and library, but the university never materialised.
But now we are witnessing a new ascent. The city's saviour this time is neither a saint, prince of the Church, or warrior king. He is a cheeky Australian chef.
Dean Coppard, the man who met his future Armagh partner on Bondi Beach, set up a restaurant some six years ago. The restaurant we are visiting today, Uluru, is its second incarnation. It was formerly housed a few yards away up the steep hill near the Church of Ireland cathedral. But now it's down among the mortals in Market Street, bigger and better, alive and buzzing.
Interestingly, it's linked physically and commercially to Emerson's supermarket next door. This family-owned shop has grown into a great big grocer's with butcher's counter and bakery and is full of charm. It's a pillar of Armagh's surviving economy.
I happen to be in Uluru with another Dean, Dean Gregory Dunstan of St Patrick's CoI Cathedral and also Keeper of the Armagh Public Library (a fabulous legacy of Archbishop Robinson).
We are both of good appetite and soon enjoying a plate of goat's cheese mousse profiteroles and a potato, lavender and onion soup. Both are hits.
The profiteroles are entertaining, the choux pastry just like a dessert, but on reflection, provide exactly the right structure for a dry and mildly bitter goat's cheese mousse. The soup is velvety smooth, full of sweet and salty comfort and the depth you expect of a quality, balanced potage.
As a treat, Dean sent over a gently roasted scallop all firm and tender and sitting atop a laksa sauce with Chinese greens and asparagus heads. Sublime. (He says he just wanted to give us a flavour of what he does in the evenings for dinner - I saw the menu and I'll be back.)
A penne carbonara with chicken is a generous, luscious affair, full of creamy sinfulness and flavours from the chicken and bacon. Dean Dunstan, a fit man who cycles and is blessed with the silhouette of an athlete, had no problem putting away the large bowlful before declaring it excellent.
Because Uluru has a Josper grill, I thought it would be rude not to have the burger. This one's a classic. Glossy-topped brioche bun, firm but not too compressed patty within, buttressed by layers of packed lettuce leaves, a little melted brie and smoked bacon, the burger is one of the best so far this year. It provides bite and keeps its form from start to end.
The room itself is by master restaurant interior designers Oscar & Oscar (OX, Haptik, Howard Street, Il Pirata). There are booths for groups of four or five and the entire room is attractive. There isn't a bad table in it.
The wide-open kitchen provides a busy, bustling backdrop and the mood is uplifting with a decent music loop playing.
Armagh badly needed Uluru. There are very good spots in the city now, including the Moody Boar and 4 Vicars, and now the city centre can claim all the components it needs to succeed: a theatre, cinema, good restaurant and excellent grocer's.
Goat's cheese profiteroles £4.95
Chicken carbonara £6.50
Bondi burger £6.95
Bramley apple sponge £4.95
Glass pinot grigio £3.75
Large sparkling water x 2£5.50
Double espresso £1.80