Life

Eating Out: A funny thing happened on the way to the Millennium Forum's Arbutus

Dominic Kearney

Arbutus

Millennium Forum

Newmarket Street

Derry

 

FOR those of you who’ve been wondering – and, I admit, it might just have been me – the arbutus is an evergreen tree or shrub of a genus that includes the strawberry tree, and is cultivated both for ornament and food.

Which brings us to the end of Gardener’s Question Time for this week. And now…

For Christmas, I was given a ticket for David O’Doherty at Derry’s Millennium Forum, or Falcon, as I like to call it, which explains why I was in the audience rather than on the stage.

As luck would have it, the only other social event in my diary for the entire year was on the same day, meaning I had less than an hour to grab something to eat before the show began. It made perfect sense, then, to grab it from the pre-theatre menu at Arbutus, the restaurant inside the venue, where I met up with my brother and a friend, who were also in town for the night.

Now, for no reason other than my own stupid imagination, the idea of a pre-theatre dinner has always conjured up images of penniless artists feasting on oysters and absinthe, paid for by a sketch on a napkin, before squeezing into the cheap seats, lingering at the stage door to be ignored by the leading lady, and then going off to a garret to grapple consumption and a society that doesn’t understand genius.

If there were any penniless artists there, they’d come disguised as well-heeled comedy fans, and there wasn’t a drop of absinthe to be had. Another illusion shattered.

I was running late. By the time I arrived, curtain-up was only about 40 minutes away, so I just ordered the first thing I saw on the menu, which turned out to be sizzling chicken fajitas.

There wasn’t much of a sizzle to them, I must say, but it was a generous portion of tender meat smothered in a deep sauce which carried a slowly rising fiery heat. The dips – sour cream, I think, salsa, and mayonnaise – were fine, maybe a bit out-of-a-jar, and the wraps were soft and tasty, if a little dinky.

The panko crumbs gave a lovely, crispy texture to the chicken goujons – again, a very generous portion – but they’d perhaps been in the fryer a touch too long and the meat was a little dry.

The pork belly, however, was really good indeed. Very well cooked, the crackling was excellent and the meat was soft, juicy, and packed with flavour. The little black pudding bon bons were perfect – crisp and full of depth and pepperiness, while the toffee apple puree was sweet and the piccalilli, which doesn’t appear on menus nearly often enough, was sharp and deliciously crunchy.

This was a beautifully balanced, nicely judged plate of food. I enjoyed the sides, especially the Parmesan fries and the little zings of red onion in the coleslaw.

I guess as a time-saving device, with people checking their watches for the start of the show, there was only one pudding on the menu, a trio of desserts that could all be ready and prepared well in advance. With the audience being called, I just had time for a spoonful of each, and they were light and refreshing, nice enough.

I think I was expecting something a little more sophisticated. The menu feels more lunchtime than evening, although there are stylish night-time touches. It is excellent value, however, and Arbutus is a fun place to eat, full of atmosphere and anticipation for the coming show.

One of David O’Doherty’s routines concerned a conversation he might have with his 20-year-old self, in which he’d have to admit he didn’t turn out to be the slick, suited, sharp, debonair comedian of his dreams. Instead, he’s a little bit everyday to look at, but clever, nevertheless, as well as warm and amiable, with some genuine depth. Pretty much sums up Arbutus, too.

THE BILL

Wok-fried sizzling chicken fajitas, bell peppers, red onion, enchilada, wraps, dips £14

Roast pork belly, toffee apple puree, piccalilli, black pudding bon bons £14

Crispy panko-crumbed chicken goujons, chimmi mayo, salsa dips £14

Assiette of desserts (lemon posset, chocolate waffle basket and ice cream, Eton mess) £4 x 2

Diet Coke £2.20

Coffee £2.50

Total: £54.70

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