I had heard through the culinary grapevine that a sparkly, brand spanking new restaurant had recently opened in the old Custom House building in Derry City so of course I had to investigate to see what all the fuss was about.
Derry’s latest addition to the dining scene, the Custom House Restaurant and Wine bar occupies the historic three storey premises which date back to 1876 and is actually a listed building. From the outside it looks grand and regal, with the stone work typical of this city keeping good company with its neighbour, the Guildhall, but if you look closely through the windows on the first floor you can see a gleaming new kitchen and sparkling chandeliers. It certainly looks promising, but nothing will prepare you for the interior. Since renovation began in 2008, the owners have obviously spared no expense kitting the entire three storeys out in bold, opulent, plush furnishings, which certainly make a statement – the Custom House is here to stay. The ground floor bar looks like something out of a 1930s cocktail movie, with a contemporary slant. I was half expecting to see Humphrey Bogart propping up the bar in a cloud of smoke. It’s definitely got a grand art-deco theme throughout, but the atmosphere is far from stuffy, the Custom House is clear on its intent – this is a fun place, of class, cocktails and good dining.
We were a bit early so we decided to soak up the atmosphere with a quick snifter in the bar, one glass of house Merlot and a draught of Peroni, an Italian beer. It was a nice surprise for the opportunity to try Peroni on draught, I’ve only ever tasted bottles, but this came in a tall slender pint glass, cold, crisp and refreshing – it tasted like more!
The bar man showed us up to the 1st floor dining room, and I have to say I know Derry natives have a reputation for being very friendly, but the staff at the Custom House were great. Impeccably turned out in white shirts and black aprons, polite and professional, and I loved the fact that ear pieces were being used, obviously management want to run a tight ship. Nice to see a restaurant taking its staffing so seriously, when so many places are let down by a negative staff experience.
The main dining room is an inviting space and continues the luxurious tone, with lots of booths and banquette seating offset with plush carpet, dark bistro wood and retro light fittings. You can’t help but be enveloped in good feelings, that are indicative of a good time, as you walk past the well stocked cocktail bar and polished beer taps to your right and the buzz of the kitchen pass on your left. Walking into a dining room like this when it’s busy, sets the tone for the evening and I knew as we walked in that is was going to be good. I love it when a restaurant decides to base the dining room around an open kitchen, it shows balls and is a sure sign of a restaurant confident in its offering. It really adds to the evening when you can see the chefs hard at work, being able to survey the theatre of the kitchen creates just the right atmosphere; views out over the River Foyle don’t hurt either.
The dining room was a real mix of clientele, families, young and old, couples romancing, Derry dolly birds, people dressed up and people dressed down. The Custom House might look grand and magnificent, but it has a down to earth atmosphere, making you feel very comfortable and in the right frame of mind to enjoy yourself. We got a snug booth just to the right of the pass and there was something very comforting about being in a busy restaurant, but at the same time being hidden away.
Our waiter informed us that a few of the dishes were off, as it was Sunday night and those greedy Derry ones had been chomping their way through the menu with gusto over the course of the weekend! Promising none the less. The menu is well laid out on one page and is easy to read. This is classic bistro fare, with favourites such as cuts of steak, rack of lamb, duck, chicken done a number of ways, pork belly, venison, a good list of fish dishes and a small vegetarian offering. On first read the dishes are uncomplicated, with the chef only using a handful of ingredients to allow the flavour and textures of the meat or fish to really shine through. The food at the Custom House is about bold succulent flavours, quality ingredients and simple delicious combinations.
I went for the pate to start and the grilled hake for main, while Aine went for the salt and chilli squid to start and the rack of lamb with cous cous and tzatziki. We shared a dish of garlic potatoes and a green salad.
The house pate was a parfait, so essentially a very light mousse, that just melted in the mouth, pale pink in colour, outlined with a thin layer of clarified butter. It was one of the lightest, richest pates I’ve ever tasted, served with a thick slice of toasted walnut bread and fruity chutney flavoured with orange zest that added a nice sharpness to the richness of the pate, although I would have liked a little bit more chutney.
Aine went for the starter of salt and chilli squid, which re-affirmed my taste in a dish that has become common place and can sometimes be a little bland, but not this version. The squid was lightly battered in a thin crispy coating, perfectly fried, tender and not overcooked, served on a bed of pak choi, fried onions and chillis. It was fiery but spice always seems to go well with squid and the bed of vegetables added crunch and texture to the dish. The squid came with three dips on the side, a wasabi mayonnaise, sweet chilli jam and soy sauce laced with more chillis. Out of the three the wasabi mayonnaise was the best, creamy and smooth against the crisp batter with a kick from the wasabi. One dip would probably have been enough.
The pan fried hake was served with orzo pasta, chorizo sausage, peas and carrots. The hake was beautifully fresh, cooked to perfection, thick chunky flakes of fresh fish, seasoned well with a crispy skin. I always think ordering fish is a good way to measure the cooking skills of a kitchen, and the Custom House brigade passed with flying colours. With a nod to the Mediterranean, this dish was full of flavour, the fresh fish went very well with the smoky spice of the chorizo and the sweet peas, with added bite from the grains of orzo pasta. White fish and chorizo is such a great combination as you get the smoky paprika oil from the chorizo coating the fish, ramping up the taste factor. Even the tiny cubes of carrots were cooked perfectly, tender but still retaining bite for added texture.
Aine’s lamb was cooked medium as she had asked for, and was full of flavour, very tender, pink and succulent. The roasting juices were deep and rich with flavour and it was good to see the Chef hadn’t skimped, there’s nothing worse when you don’t get enough ‘jus.’ The cous cous was a welcome addition to aid ‘soakage’ of all that rich roasting liquor, accompanied with the tzatziki which was cool, smooth, and fresh providing a good contrast to the savoury roasted lamb. The only way to eat this dish was by loading up the fork with a chunk of lamb, topped with some cous cous, a dollop of tzatziki and dredged through the dark roasting juices.
Even the sides of garlic potatoes and green salad were evident that care and attention had gone into them. The potatoes were golden and crispy and the salad was a good combination of peppery rocket leaves and earthy beetroot leaves, red onion sliced so thinly you could see through it, rounds of radish, and laced with a sharp tangy dressing.
Aine was enjoying a glass of Merlot to go with the lamb and I decided to go for a glass of the New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I seem to be going through a new world Sauvignon Blanc phase and this glass wasn’t doing anything to help me break the current trend. It was a delicious glass of wine, fresh, with lots of tropical fruit, mangos and passion fruit and it went so well with the hake. I liked it so much I had a second glass and it was just as good as the first sip. It was a very drinkable wine and I couldn’t get enough of all that heady tropical fruit. The name of the producer has been committed to memory and I will endeavour to seek this out on a regular basis – Murray’s Road Sauvignon Blanc. What a savage bonk it was!
The portion sizes were just right so at this point we weren’t feeling too full up. We decided to soldier on and tempted fate with a quick look at the dessert menu, just a small look, there’ll probably be nothing on it we fancy and then bam! out of nowhere, in plain black and white, impossible to resist, we had no choice but to go for the sticky toffee pudding and the apple tart, both served with vanilla ice-cream…anyone would have done the same, I implore any human to say no to a sticky toffee pudding!
We did consider sharing dessert for a split second, but I’m glad we both decided to go the whole nine yards. The sticky toffee pudding was a fine example of light moist warm sponge, topped with a scoop of very good quality vanilla ice-cream, surrounded by a thick pond of buttery toffee sauce – this was about as good as a sticky toffee pudding gets. Aine’s apple tart was deceptive as on first glance it didn’t look very exciting, the slices of apple were laid on a very thin sheet of puff pastry, and it looked a bit flat, but all concerns subsided when she took her first bite. The tart was full of flavour, sweet sharp apples, dusted with cinnamon and because the pastry was so thin, the tart had a lightness to it. The tart came with a scoop of the same vanilla ice-cream, which excellent quality, creamy and rich flecked with vanilla seeds.
Dessert was the tipping point, I tried to convince my self that I wasn’t full up, bit I had to be honest, I was now stuffed as a pike! An espresso and cappuccino were swiftly ordered, which were made using Illy coffee and were delicious, even the coffee was faultless, the espresso held it’s crema to the end and the cappuccino was deep and frothy – again evidence that the Custom House is considering every small detail, right down to the very last mouthful of the meal.
All in for six drinks, two starters, two mains, two desserts and two coffees, the bill came to £85.80. The Custom House is worth every penny, when you consider the whole package : the ‘uber’ plush setting, the impeccable staff, and the top notch bistro food, executed with skill, passion and style. If you want a treat, an occasion, a fun night of cocktails and quality dining, then the Custom House is the place. I will definitely be back in the Custom House and have no doubt that it is well poised to become the beating culinary heart of Derry City.
Custom House Restaurant and Wine Bar
Custom House Street
T: +44 (0) 28 7137 3366