Joris Minne: Custom House Restaurant, Londonderry
Don't let the impossibly glam interior detract you from the impressive dishes constructed by battling chef Christopher 'Tufty' Moran
The Derry/Londonderry culinary king is Ian Orr. His two restaurants, Brown's in the Waterside and Brown's in Town in Strand Road, are both excellent, the latter being more a populist, brasserie version of the fine diner across the Foyle.
But halfway between both Brown's restaurants in the city's most attractive building is Christopher 'Tufty' Moran, head chef in the Custom House Restaurant and Wine Bar. Tufty is like a man besieged, holding tight in his bastion preparing for battle each day and making food to rival Orr's two operations.
The Custom House is a very sober, robust and graceful Victorian building which stands next to the Guildhall overlooking the Foyle. You can tell it was a place for the serious business of gathering taxes and inspecting the goods offloading from recently moored ships. It has a grave face and was never intended for fun and frivolity.
But open the front door and suddenly everything is the other way round. Glamorous, glitzy and very sexy, the interior style cues are straight out of the late Nineties edition of a Las Vegas design album. From the bar downstairs, up through the grand sweeping staircases and into the restaurant, the entire place is dripping in boudoir chic, all golds and crystal and back lighting. You would need to be a completely miserable old git not to admire the extravagance and ornateness. Restraint has not been shown and the result is magnificently vulgar. And as EM Forster might have asked: What is vulgarity but a surfeit of beauty?
But an alarm bell is already ringing in my head. When this amount of money has been spent on the environment, in my experience, it usually bodes badly for the quality of the food. The stakes are high when the sofas are this soft and expectations can be disproportionate. And with large focus on the money-making revenue-generator bar, surely the less profitable kitchens will take a back seat in the overall operation?
Not in the Custom House. The kitchen is a serious affair under the direction of Tufty, who talks like a machine-gun and whose eye for detail does not relax for a second. I know because I watched him on the evening of the Turner Prize announcement when the boss and I went in for a pre-event early dinner. The boss, Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson, had commandeered my car and driving services for the evening and the pressure was on to find somewhere decent to eat at an impossible time on a Monday, when most chefs are off.
But Tufty is not most chefs and Custom House clearly needs to turn over a fair sum to pay for the baubles. Which means it's open. Staff are charming, experienced and aim to please. Dining tables at the end of the room on the raised dais are the ones to go for as you command a view of the entire room (you also get to be seen by everyone who matters; and they're a step down from you).
A menu of old standards reveal the point at which the owners refused to take any more rash decisions. Starters include chargrilled chicken Caesar salad, salt and chilli squid, foie gras and chicken liver pate.
Soup of the day is a potato and leek warm Vichyssoise with a dribble of truffle oil. In certain circumstances and among the wrong company, truffle oil smells of body odour. Once you get past this small obstacle, you can start enjoying its depth and many flavours. With leek and potato soup it's just showing off. It might add a bit of sparkle to something which sounds bland and uninteresting but here, it's unnecessary and a gratuitous act of pure showmanship and I love it.
The boss's squid goes down well and without complaint. It is what it is, crispy, slightly spicy and plentiful.
Among the choice of mains are five different chicken dishes, four steaks, lamb and pork and a variety of fish including steamed sea bass and a handful of vegetarian things.
The boss has a chicken pasta dish which defeats him. It is mountainous and I can see he's already depressed at the thought of having to work his way through it all. I, on the other hand, am smug. The fish of the day is very classy little piece of hake. Hake is in season so you'll see it everywhere right now. And this means you can compare the best hake chefs. Tufty's is a generous affair with two chunky roast-just-right hake fillets with a few vegetables and a warm, light, creamy shrimpy sauce.
Custom House is a must-see in Derry. As the city reaches the end of its tenure as keeper of culture 2013, one legacy which will survive is its bar and restaurant offer. And the Custom House would be a hard place to beat on either front.
Chilli squid £8.95
Fish special £16.95
Bottle of The Ned £24
Queen’s Quay, Londonderry BT48 7AS
Tel: 028 7137 3366