Eating Out: Our reviewers' top picks of places to eat in 2016
Eating out is a tough job but someone's got to do it... Irish News restaurant reviewers Dominic Kearney, Allison Morris and Seamus Maloney choose their favourite food experiences of the past year
MY three favourite places to eat? Easy: 1, My mouth – call me old-fashioned; 2, In front of the TV; 3, Off somebody else’s pl... Oh, I get you. You mean restaurants. Right.
I’ve been lucky this past year, eating in a variety of good restaurants around the island. The ones that stand out, though, are all pretty close to home. The puddings at the Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry were particularly memorable. My panna cotta was creamy, sharp, and sweet, while my brother went on licking his empty bowl of trifle even as the waiter was trying to wrestle it back to the kitchen. The thing I liked most about the Bishop’s Gate, however, was the sense that here was a new, special place for the town.
Belle’s Kitchen in Rathmullan was a real find. I know of few more hauntingly beautiful places than this little town by the Swilly, touched by greys and browns and dull coppers when I visited in autumn. But while the rest of Rathmullan seemed to be settling down to hibernate until spring, here was Belle’s Kitchen, red as a post box, bright and brash and wide awake. The food is much better than the décor, so don’t go with your first impressions. I scoffed a brilliant plate of fish and chips there, while the wheaten bread that came with the delicious French onion soup was quite simply the best I’ve tasted – rich, deep, sweet, and perfect.
There’s only one contender for my favourite restaurant of 2016, and that’s Vanilla, in Newcastle. I’ve rarely, if ever, had a better meal. From the vodka martini aperitif to the lemon crème brulee, everything was beautiful, everything was delicious, everything was just right. The menu was imaginative, the ingredients were selected with care, the cooking was clever, the service was warm and attentive. Vanilla is a special place, the kind of restaurant you invent reasons to go to, when in fact you only need one: the food is just wonderful.
IN every future pub quiz, any question that starts with, Name the year... will end in the answer 2016. It has been quite the year: Brexit, Trump, countless celebrities checking out, among them the godfather of food reviewing AA Gill who sadly left for that big Michelin Star restaurant in the sky.
But while others despair at what this year has thrown up, I've quite enjoyed it; it's been far from dull and I've eaten in some pretty terrific places along the way.
Wine and Brine in Moira being one of them, a great wee spot with the wonderful Chris McGowan in the kitchen, it was delightful, not least for the rhubarb souffle my daughter was good enough to let me dip a spoon into.
Balloo House in Killinchy, elegant and stylish, with chef Danny Millar placing a big emphasis on local produce, I had langoustines pulled from the water that morning and venison so tender it was like melted chocolate in my mouth.
Graze in Ballyhackamore – or Ballysnackamore as it's now known, given the number of places to eat out – was one of those really great nights with my mad, funny daughter celebrating her birthday. We drank prosecco and ate the most delicious seafood and buttery lamb all beautifully presented, waited on by the most charming of staff.
Then there was the lovely Killyhelvin Hotel in Fermanagh, where I had succulent duck, and finished off the night drinking gin and elderflower tonic while looking out at the stunning lakes in the company of one of my oldest friends. Good food is always enhanced by good company.
And finally, I ended the year with a sumptuous short rib in one of my childhood haunts, the Balmoral Hotel and its newly opened Seasons Restaurant. OK, there's a reality show host in charge of the White House, we face post EU economic uncertainty but it's not all bad: I've eaten well and that's always worth smiling about.
“HOW many cows do you think you’ve eaten in your life?” With a steak on my brother-in-law’s plate and beef ribs in front of me, it was a reasonable enough question to ask and, while neither of us could produce an answer that would stand up in court, it doesn’t do any harm to think about just where your meat comes from.
It’s a good thing to contemplate every so often, just as it’s good to appreciate a place that does something worthwhile with the well-produced, quality meat they’ve got their hands on. As it happens, meat was the star of three of my best dining experiences this year – which also included a pretty good lunch at Belfast vegan cafe Raw Food Rebellion – with ducks, pigs, sheep and cows all providing memorable meals.
The Duck House in Belfast served up the – spoiler alert – duck, with soft pink breast in an orange sauce that was all marmalade tang, and shredded pieces of leg through a hot and sour soup rich with duck stock both hitting the mark. They also serve some impressive cocktails. Get the margarita. Get two.
Five minutes away in the city centre, a revamped Bubbacue continues to dish out perfectly smoked brisket and pulled pork. There’s equally good sausage and chicken too, though if you just ordered a portion of their barbecue beans and a couple of pieces of cornbread you’d go home happy.
The best of all, like The Duck House, has the animals right there in the name. The Bull & Ram in Ballynahinch, situated in an old butcher’s shop, wears its carnivorous credentials with pride and did everything with a deftness and care to create something exceptional. It helps that they’re supplied by the award-laden Hannan Meats in Moira but, as good as the raw materials are, the corned beef, lamb chops and 40-day aged rump they plated up elevated every cut.
There was also a boat of bone marrow gravy that was the very essence of cow. How many cows? I’ll have to get back to you.