2016 promises to be an exciting year for the food, hospitality and tourism sectors in Northern Ireland as it has been designated as Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink. Each month will have a specific theme and with the support of Tourism NI, a wide range of events is scheduled to take place during the year. With a thriving artisan food industry, some world-class chefs and so many wonderful places to eat in, this timely initiative will help to cement Northern Ireland’s reputation as one of Europe’s top food destinations.
I felt that a visit to the North was long overdue so I arranged a short break away and booked a table for dinner in Browns Restaurant & Champagne Lounge in Derry. The restaurant is conveniently located close to the centre of the city at the lower end of Bond’s Hill overlooking Lough Foyle. As runner-up in the prestigious Restaurant Association of Ireland’s (RAI) Foodie Towns Awards for 2015, Derry has an impressive foodie pedigree so I was really looking forward to visiting the historic Walled City and to my meal in Browns.
Browns on Bond’s Hill is one of a group of restaurants which includes Browns in Town located on Strand Road, also in Derry – providing a more casual dining experience – and Browns on the Green in Letterkenny, County Donegal. Under head chef Ian Orr the Bond’s Hill restaurant has a fine dining focus but the food is still accessible and unpretentious. Ian, who trained under Robbie Millar in Shanks – Northern Ireland’s formative Michelin starred restaurant, has also worked in London’s famous River Café and at Rathmullan House Hotel in Donegal. Passionate about Irish food, his commitment to using fresh, seasonal produce and supporting local suppliers was evident throughout my meal in Browns.
As I arrived, I was struck by the friendly, welcoming atmosphere in Browns which was busy on the Wednesday evening that I visited. A central bar and dining room forms the hub of the restaurant which has a number of other adjoining dining areas leading off it. Decorated in dark, warm colours, the overall feeling is one of cosy relaxation which I found particularly appealing and it occurred to me more than once that this would be the perfect place for a romantic dinner.
There are a number of menus offered in Browns; a set dinner menu (with two courses for £17.95 or three courses for £21.95) and an à la carte menu. Also available is a six course tasting menu which, after some initial indecision, was the one that I eventually plumped for. Even allowing for a less-than-favourable euro/sterling exchange rate, I think that at £40 per person (or £65 with optional wine pairings) the tasting menu represents phenomenal value for money and gives the diner the chance to sample a variety of dishes.
Browns has an impressive wine list and also offers a small selection of classic cocktails which were too tempting to resist. My Dark & Stormy made with dark rum, ginger beer and dash of angostura bitters was the perfect aperitif and I enjoyed sipping on it as I ate the excellent breads that were served as the precursor to my meal. Both the Foccacia and the Stout Soda Bread were presented as mini-loaves with dipping oil and butter on the side. They were delicious with a light, slightly chewy crumb.
A pre-starter consisting of Canapés and Soup was next to arrive. I loved the crisp texture of both the basil and parmesan crackers which were served delicately balanced on the edge of a bowl of tiny pebbles. Normally I’m not a fan of gimmicky presentation but this arrangement was forgivable as it accentuated the almost geological, organic look of the crackers which came topped with pearlescent dots of creamy mayonnaise. The small cup of Butternut Squash Velouté with its velvety texture and sweet, earthy notes was the perfect counterfoil to the crispness of the crackers. With a swirl of pesto and a sprinkling of puffed rice, I found it amazing how such a dainty dish could seem so full-flavoured.
Similarly, the Chicken Wing, Goat’s Curd & Artichoke Salad was another light offering but one that tantalised the taste buds without assaulting the palate with rich, heavy flavours too early on in the meal. Too often salads can be a dumping ground for random ingredients but this one comprising a ‘wafer’ of crispy chicken-skin, lightly dressed leaves and deep-fried goat’s curd bon-bon was perfectly balanced and a delight to eat.
Langoustine Ravioli with Onion & Squash was next up and looked wonderfully appetising. The silky pasta had been expertly made and, with its filling of sweet langoustines, it was a pleasure to eat. A ‘leaf’ of charred onion provided refuge for some tiny cubes of butternut squash which also appeared on the plate in the form of an exquisitely smooth purée. The caramelised edges of the onion added a very subtle bitterness which prevented this dish from tasting too sweet and also served to accentuate the meatiness of the langoustines.
The menu description of the next dish was enough to get my gastric juices flowing – Cod, Piccalilli, Walnut & Curry and it didn’t disappoint. I loved the cod croquette which was generously packed full of fish and was comforting to eat. Crushed toasted walnuts added crunch whilst the excellent piccalilli leant the dish a spicy piquancy. Presented on a striking red plate this was food that was begging to be devoured.
The simplicity of the next two dishes was confirmation, if any was needed, that there is a highly accomplished and assured chef at work in Browns. The Duck, Cabbage & Celeriac and the Beef – Sirloin, Shin, Potato & Onion both relied on some skillful yet restrained cooking to showcase the wonderful quality of the ingredients that were used. Both plates of food were outstanding and provided high points in what was a memorable meal.
An Apricot Sorbet was welcome relief after the richness of the previous two dishes. Presented in dinky little chocolate waffle cones they added a touch of frivolity to the meal. Thankfully, the sorbet wasn’t too sweet and it succeeded in doing what it set out to do… refresh the palate.
The meal finished on a high with a Hot Chocolate Fondant, Milk Sorbet & Chocolate Tuille. Fondants are sometimes known as chocolate lava cakes and when made as well as this one was, it is not hard to see why. Once I broke through its spongy exterior the fondant released a flowing river of hot chocolate. I particularly liked the accompanying milk sorbet which was delightfully refreshing and finished off the dish perfectly. Feeling in a rather self-indulgent mood I decided to order a glass of Maison Sichel Sauternes £7.00 to enjoy with my dessert which, with its pale golden colour and nose of summer fruits, stood up well to the chocolate in the dessert.
The tasting menu in Browns is coherent and well thought out. Each course makes sense in the context of the menu as a whole and this results in an unforgettable dining experience. I was really impressed by Ian Orr’s cooking and loved his delicate but confident touch. Service throughout was friendly and attentive. The staff are well-informed about the menu and you get a real sense that they are genuinely enthusiastic about the food on offer.
Browns Restaurant & Champagne Lounge
1 Bond’s Hill
T: (0044) 28 7134 5180
Northern Ireland Tourist Board www.tourismni.com
I’m simply someone who loves cooking and experimenting with food and different ingredients. From my early childhood spent in Zambia and Australia before returning home to Ireland I was fascinated with cookbooks and reading recipes. I would spend many hours reading my grandmother’s cookbooks and watching her preparing food in the kitchen.
Although I studied to become a graphic designer and spent a few years working in advertising before then becoming a civil servant, the one thing I always wanted to be was a food writer – sharing my enthusiasm for cooking with others, but I lacked the confidence to do the thing I wanted to do most in case I failed. I finally decided to take a risk and applied for MasterChef Ireland 2014 and was one of the three finalists.
For me, food and cooking is about family, friendship, sharing and conviviality. As a mother of three, I want my children to grow up with a love and appreciation of how lucky we are to live in a country like Ireland with such great produce and so many wonderful food producers. I continue to write and share my enthusiasm for food on my food and recipe blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.