Restaurants in Derry/Londonderry are like mushrooms. You wait a lifetime for one to sprout and then half a dozen of them leap out from behind the Peace Bridge at the same time. The Sooty Olive is the latest restaurant to be uncovered in Derry city's Waterside, not far from the temple of good food and genuflecting service, Brown's in Bond's Hill.
During the 2013 City of Culture festivities, restaurants such as the Custom House, Brown's in Town and Quaywest (whose operational model is clearly based on a cut-price carpet warehouse – pile them high and sell them cheap) and a few others came under scrutiny and were, by and large, reasonable to excellent.
The Sooty Olive, named after a trout-fishing tied fly, joins the ranks of the rather goods.
People from the city, the cradle of power-shared civilization, make an effort to display their cross community credentials by crossing the bridge to Spencer Road for a bit of lunch and it was a busy weekday when two of us slipped into the dark and hushed, low-ceilinged restaurant leaving a raging wet gale to blow outside.
The front of house staff is alert and conscious that people only have so much time before they must get back to the office. They are accommodating and flexible and requests for small alterations to menu items (can I have vegetables instead of mash with that fish?) are gracefully dealt with.
Happily, the food in here is very good and designed to be brought quickly to the table. There are soups and sandwiches, BLTs and clubs. The BLT triple decker includes a salad, pesto and house chutney and is under a fiver.
To give you an idea of the comforting and occasionally exciting choice of mains at lunch time there are: goat's cheese tart with pickled beetroot, grilled chicken wrap with spiced tomato sauce, salad and lime mayo, chicken, leek and potato pie with homebaked bread, burgers, steak sandwiches, chowder, Asian squid or a couple more dishes all for £6.95 including a choice of side.
Last time I had Asian squid and gave off about it because it looked so transparent and anaemic was in Simon McCance's otherwise great Belfast restaurant, Ginger. So I kept away from it. Just in case.
Instead, a seabass served with green beans, new potatoes and sweet mustard dressing (also £6.95) and another larger seabass dish were delivered. The difference was in the volume. The smaller one included one fillet, the larger, two. Very nicely roasted in butter, the fish was precision-timed and had enough crispy savouriness in the skin and firm, moist flakey flesh within to be declared spot on. Accompanying green beans and potatoes with that dressing completed a well-composed and well-judged dish which could only come from someone either very experienced or instinctive.
I imagine Ian Orr who owns the nearby Brown's would approve of the fact that a chef who has a sense for finesse should be within a stone's throw.
Every effort has been made to chase the Sooty Olive's interior dullness but try as the nice lights and colour schemes might, the dining rooms still feel too brown and mellow to be described as cheerful. The nice design touches just aren't robust or assertive enough to fight off the low ceilinged, higgledy pigglediness of the terraced house and the perma-shade created by the small windows. But this is the Sooty Olive's only downside. While interior design may be critical to the success of a restaurant, the fact is that it is comfortable and warm. Maybe it's more of an evening place, a neighbourhood hub to which locals are drawn when it's dark anyway. Three courses for £16.95 is a steal nowadays.
Certainly, any warmth and hospitality generated in the place is entirely down to the staff.
2-course lunch £14.95
Light lunch seabass £6.95
Wine x 2 glasses £9.00
Coffees x 4 £11.80
The Sooty Olive: 160-164 Spencer Road, Waterside, Londonderry. Tel: 028 7134 6040