Dean Coppard, the Australian heart-throb who put the 'roo' into Armagh's Uluru, has moved on. The talented and restless Oz who injected a sense of quality into Armagh's eating out experience for the first time in decades, has shifted his gaze to greener pastures and can be found cooking up a storm in Magherafelt's Mary's.
Uluru was seminal in that Armagh had never really had a proper city centre restaurant worth going to. At first it opened at the top of the very steep Market Place, close to the Church of Ireland cathedral. But about three years ago it moved down to where the people are on Market Street in a site once occupied by Walker's general store.
The handsome restaurant is still there under the direction of chef Mark McGonigle who worked under Dean for many of those years. So it comes as no surprise that the same Australian vibe is still there, there's kangaroo on the menu and the service is as slickly and effortlessly laid back, but as quick, as ever.
Uluru is the love child of local supermarket owners Emerson's and Dean when they agreed to run a restaurant whose ingredients would mostly come through the shop, a family institution much loved in Armagh. But the love faded and time, as well as Dean, moved on.
Now Uluru appears to have regained a new sense of confidence with McGonigle keen to prove that continuity is assured. And it is. An early weekday lunchtime showed business was brisk and the quality was exemplary.
Joined by locally-based journalist and digital content wizard Eleanor McGillie, we went through some unlikely lunchtime dishes including a duck confit served with a super spicy tom yum style broth and noodles. The confit was text book: crispy, falling off the bone, juicy and moist within blessed with loads of gamey duck flavours. Beneath it was the aromatic broth full of heat and spice but not so that you lost any of the flavours. Cherry tomatoes, lemongrass, mushrooms and scallions were detected and the entire little dish worked beautifully. This is the dish I would come back for repeatedly, such is the warm and reassuring pleasure that's in it.
Eleanor's chilli chicken strips came with Asian slaw and leaves with plenty of sticky but not sickeningly sweet chilli sauce. Sweet chill sauce is often destroyed by too much sugar but the delicate Thai flavours sang through happily. The chicken strips in an ultra-light tempura, itself packed with herby flavours, were melt-in-the-mouth heaven.
A main of beetroot and whisky cured salmon was curious and adventurous. Visibly delightful, plentiful and appetising, the flavours of the dry cured fish were slightly overpowered by saltiness. I was reminded of the Alaskan smoked salmon you can get here sometimes which when compared to Irish or Scottish can be too much like back bacon. Having said that, this was well balanced by a mound of dressed leaves whose sweet vinaigrette cut through the salty fish.
A vegetarian Kiev on a bed of more vegetables sent a distinct message to the eater that more is better. More like a coarse, veggie burger, the Kievs were wholesome and probably the most nutritious thing that I've seen in weeks.
If you are someone with little interest in food and for whom it's just fuel, well here's the dish for you. It should keep you going until next Thursday.
I have eaten a few times in Uluru in recent months because of a commitment to the inaugural John O'Connor Writing School which is on this weekend throughout venues in Armagh including the restaurant. I know how good this place is. The great news is that Dean will be back for one day only (today) to mark the fact that Armagh author John O'Connor died in Australia with a cook-versus-food critics demonstration featuring yours truly and my Irish Times colleague Catherine Cleary.
While we will engage with Dean in some banter the real pressure on Dean will not be from us but from the successor Mark McGonigle who will surely be paying close interest to the old boss's performance.
Duck confit £5.95
Crispy chicken £5.95
Cured salmon £8.95
Veggie Kiev £8.95