Maiden City spot Bron tops our list … but the competition was fierce
We all know that 2021 was another tough year for the hospitality industry.
Just as trade was hitting somewhere close to normal the Omicron variant hit these shores leading to a surge in cancellations and no-shows at restaurants during the key month of December.
As 2022 begins we can at least bring cheer to the 10 restaurants from across the country which our team of spies have most enjoyed during the last 12 months.
It’s always hard to choose a winner but our 2021 choice is Londonderry’s Bron which blew away our sometimes hard to please reviewer Colin Breen. And it’s followed in no particular order by nine other crowd pleasers.
5 Bishop Street, Derry
It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes a restaurant just does everything right, and it is a memory to cherish. I created just such a memory in Bron during the summer.
As we stepped in from the hustle and bustle of Derry city centre, it was like an oasis. The deceptively big dining space was relaxed and stylish. The staff were friendly and attentive from the moment we walked in. They were so proud of the food they were serving, as we discussed some of the little details on the dishes in passing conversation throughout the meal.
The starter of lamb cutlets was a real journey of flavour. The lamb was sweet and perfectly cooked, it sat on a bed of sweet potato puree rich with Indian spices and a little crunchy Middle-East style nut and seed salad.
The mains were even more monumental. A big ribeye on the bone lovingly prepared with a coffee and brown sugar rub before getting a great char to really bring out the meaty flavour. And a chicken supreme with gnocchi, again had the Bron magic wand of flavour waved over it — it was brimming with Mediterranean magnificence.
455 Ormeau Road Belfast
Hats off to Simon McCance and Simon Toye — two chefs with enough confidence in their cooking to make the fledgling Stove Bistro a resounding success.
The food is clever, sophisticated and damn tasty — it was the perfect autumn pick-me-up.
Starters were a twice-baked cheese souffle with creamed leeks and watercress, and a smoked haddock fishcake with curry mayo.
The souffle was superb, with the salty cheese tempered by the sweet and mild leeks. What impressed me even more was the sureness of the kitchen in putting a souffle as a starter as these are time-consuming and often difficult to perfect.
I can’t praise Stove enough — it’s a punchy and fearless restaurant with a belief in its food and location.
3 Castle Ave, Castlewellan, Co Down
Celebrity chef Will Brown, who previously cooked at his family’s restaurant the Old Schoolhouse Inn in Comber, is now leading the kitchen at The Yard in Castlewellan’s Hillyard House.
He trained at Roscoff under Paul Rankin before moving to London, where he worked in venues including Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and two Michelin-starred The Square in Mayfair.
His latest restaurant is wonderfully light and modern and — Covid rules permitting — can sit up to 100 people.
Showstopper dish was the flax-fed 230g beef fillet. Served with slow-cooked tomato, an onion ring, triple cooked chips and an excellent peppercorn sauce, this was definitely the highlight or a truly wonderful meal — succulent, delicious and cooked to perfection.
13 Rosemary Street, Belfast
From the outside the restaurant looks very unassuming. On the inside the decor is quite quirky and won’t be to everyone’s taste. With black wallpaper and mirrors and blue lights, I felt it had an 80s vibe, though the background music from my favourite era may have played a part there too.
The food also very much did the talking. The stand-out dishes included pan-seared wingbone chicken stack, topped with honey-roasted vegetables and a very moreish smoked bacon and vintage cheddar mash (tastes as good as it sounds) with chicken jus on the side (pepper sauce is also an option). The chicken was so succulent and all the flavours worked wonderfully together.
There’s a 10 per cent service charge automatically added to the bill but as the service was among the best I have experienced in Belfast, it was well worth it.
Loco Bar & Grill
The Valley Hotel, Main Street, Fivemiletown
Loco Grill has been a firm favourite of mine over the years so where better than it to have my first proper restaurant meal in early summer after months of restrictions.
I had also heard they have upgraded to some new kitchen gadgets including a barbecue grill for their steaks.
I simply had to try one of their steaks cooked on their new piece of kit. I got a big slab of sirloin, it was tender and pink inside, with deeply charred grill lines on the outside. It sat on a bed of mushrooms and alongside a stack of crispy tobacco onions. But the real star of the plate was a rich and creamy smoked bacon and mushroom sauce with a peppery background flavour.
It was a joy to be dining out again, great food and great service at Loco.
46 Church Street, Enniskillen
The new culinary home for Fermanagh chef Glen Wheeler is within the Blakes of the Hollow complex in what was previously Café Merlot.
He has kept the 28 from his original venture, 28 Darling Street, to bring 28@The Hollow to local foodies.
The extensive lunch menu really reflects the chef’s classic cookery style.
The highlights of our lunch included a striploin steak which had been sliced quite thinly and fanned out — which has long been part of traditional French cuisine presentation. It was beautifully cooked, with seasoning to match, and the rich sauce with a whack of pepper and a fiery hit of alcohol worked really well with it.
The Burger Club
164 Cliftonville Rd, Belfast
In my experience burgers are usually either too big, overfilled, overcooked, under-seasoned or just plain sloppy — in short, I always have beef with my burgers.
But this bright new modern restaurant in north Belfast has won me over. My partner and I shared a bacon cheeseburger and a Korean chicken burger along with candied bacon, chorizo and cheese dirty fries and buffalo chicken wings.
The brioche buns were lightly toasted to perfection and were the perfect size for both the beef patty and crispy chicken fillet. The bacon cheeseburger was a simple yet smashing delight. The beef patty was succulent and juicy and came smothered in melted cheese with perfectly crisped streaky bacon on top. The Korean chicken burger was just as impressive with a tender, juicy yet crispy chicken fillet complemented beautifully with Korean style slaw and sauce. Both burgers were absolutely top notch.
The Street Kitchen
Paget Lane, Enniskillen
Marty McAdam, an exciting young chef with an impressive CV, has taken the plunge by opening this new restaurant in Enniskillen.
In contrast to the old stone exterior, the fresh and shining interior is quite striking. It is a lovely dining space with quality music in the background and amazing aromas in the air.
The menu feels quite personal to the influences and travels the chef has encountered as he learned his craft, and when food comes from the heart it always tastes better, so I was intrigued.
There were a lot of Asian influences on both our plates. I had some superb squidgy bao buns with crispy flavourful pork, vegetables and a few swishes of coriander mayo.
The other main was an intensely flavoured chicken dish with hints of satay, chilli, curry and lots of freshness from herbs and salad all sitting on a well-made naan bread. Innovative and interesting cuisine that was well worth queuing for on our lunchtime visit.
Coq & Bull
Clandeboye Lodge Hotel, Estate Road, Bangor
“Good, honest food” proclaims the menu of this stylish north Down brassiere at a four-star hotel on the edge of the Clandeboye Estate.
“No tricks, no flimflam,” it adds. But there’s certainly plenty of skill and flair going on in the kitchen.
Take my starter. Sea trout cured in dill ruby potato vodka with bloody Mary sorbet and avocado. A superbly crafted mix of flavours and textures.
The Coq & Bull is renowned for its steaks from Coyagh Farm in Tyrone. Sure enough, my 12 oz char-grilled sirloin was cooked just exactly as I ordered it. Nicely charred on the outside but juicy medium-rare inside. No embellishments were needed for this mouth-watering prime cut, but the beef dripping chips were the perfect accompaniment. If only all steaks were this good.
“We know what looks good and what tastes great”, claims the menu. No argument here.
56 Howard Street, Belfast
This classy city centre restaurant is a byword for consistency.
My meal there in December consisted of two three-course feasts for £38 that could have graced the tables of any Michelin-starred eatery in London.
This is remarkably good value given we were dining on a Saturday night in the run-up to Christmas.
The menu bounces all over the place, in a very pleasing way, from Asia to the UK to the Mediterranean.
My mains was an absolute banger of a fish dish marrying France with India — smoked cod with fondant potato and tender stem broccoli in a prawn madras. Don’t let the madras fool you, this isn’t fiery and hot sauce, it’s more like a warm and comforting hug. The dish is a show-stopper.