Review: Armagh restaurant is a silver lining in the Brexit cloud

Moira is a small town with a properly great destination restaurant – just go

Sat, Sep 30, 2017, 06:15

   

Wine and Brine

  • Irish

If signs made noise then the one for Moira would be a whisper. Blink on the motorway and you’ll shoot past it. But as Sainsbury’s car parks fill with southern regs and day trippers to the Outlet square the muscular euro up to the punier pound, you should look out for that sign for Moira.

The turn-off brings us past fields of shaggy beef cattle gathered in the corners catching the sun. American food writer Colman Andrews once quoted an Irish farmer praising his field. He had one so fertile, the farmer said, it could fatten a bicycle. These fields look like they could put meat on the flimsiest of fixies. 

Moira is a neat, buttoned-down town with a small free car park at the top of its main drag, so there’s no scramble for sterling change. Wine and Brine is a short walk away. It is white-painted outside and brightly pretty inside, where a wide room is lit by a rectangle of skylight in the middle and glass doors to a small courtyard at the back. There are duck-egg-green walls and blue banquettes dotted with gold cushions. 

You don’t normally find small menus in big rooms. Wine and Brine is a homecoming for chef patron Chris McGowan. He has worked in big-name kitchens, with Richard Corrigan, Pierre Koffman and Gary Rhodes, according to the website. To use the local idiom, there are wee dishes, ones that are less wee and ones that aren’t wee at all. It’s a struggle to choose because everything sounds so good. 

On a beautiful £10 plate I get pigeon, served so vividly red it looks like organ meat

It’s a lunch of two schools. Starters are the kind of food I fantasise about finding in pubs one day. I will be able to wander into a cosy local and order a plate of black-pudding sausage rolls with house ketchup like the ones they make in Wine and Brine. They’ll come in neat parcels, the crisp, light pastry glazed outside like a storybook pie, the sooty black pudding crumbly and nutty without a trace of grease, both light and punchy at the same time with a tang of spicy ketchup to tweak them up a perfect notch. It would be too much to hope (I have a modest fantasy life) to also find the smoked-eel croquettes in my imaginary pub. In Wine and Brine these come in a gorgeous pottery bowl with a little pot of caramel coloured gooseberry preserve. This is less jam and more sauce keeping the tartness of these berries just the right side of mouth-puckering, like picking a sun-warmed berry off the bush. The croquettes are smokey as a bonfire and have a light bread crust, soft and gorgeous. 

The mains take us to out of super snacks to restaurant cooking, the kind of level that usually involves a much larger wedge of cash than they’re charging here. On a beautiful £10 plate I get pigeon, served so vividly red it looks like organ meat. There’s a small wedge of charred baby gem spaced in between the meat, and pure white discs that look like thick Communion wafer but are sweetly pickled turnip slices. There’s a silky splodge of mushroom purée to marry this food of the sky with the forest floor with serious depth of flavour. My least favourite bit is the one that probably took most work, leg meat wrapped in slightly soggy pastry. But that’s only because it’s outshone by the rest of a stellar plate. 

My friend has the plaice, a china-white fillet roasted with brown butter so it has a crust of almost chip-shop thickness and tastiness. There are razor clams chopped up in a shell with samphire and a perfectly bitter shard of braised chicory. Potatoes with seaweed butter are as good as they sound and “spring greens” (in September?) of broccoli and kale are a masterclass in how to cook brassicas without losing their spanking bright colour and crisp green bite. 

Pudding is almost a cheese course disguised as a dessert, a goat’s milk cream topped with damson jam. Shortbread biscuits are flecked with thyme. Most of the sweetness comes from the luscious damson-like forgotten fruit. Loyola’s treacle tart is a biscuity bakewell treatment of this favourite served with a spot-on brown bread ice cream. She’s a baker who judges places on their pastry. By this measure Wine and Brine comes out with a gold star. 

In the post-Brexit omnishambles facing Northern Ireland there are few silver linings. A stronger euro to spend on memorable food in a restaurant like Wine and Brine might just be one of them. So look out for the sign. Moira is a small town with a properly great destination restaurant. 

Lunch for two with a glass of wine, sparkling water and a coffee came to £58 (€72.59). 

Verdict: 8½/10 Super value in a lovely restaurant. Go.
Wine and Brine 59 Main St, Moira, Co Armagh 00-44-2892610500

Facilities: Good
Wheelchair access: Yes
Music: Nice
Food provenance: None
Vegetarian options: Limited. Lots of goat’s cheese 

AUTUMN DELIGHTS

Much of the last month has been spent standing in squares of sunlight like Wall-e recharging his battery pack. Only I’m trying to pretend it’s still summer. So I took to the new granite seats outside the refurbished Merrion Square entrance to the National Gallery for a last sun bask. There’s a Cloud Picker coffee guy there until early next month. I sipped while listening to two women from Cork discussing the geopolitical situation like it was a spat in a nearby village. Then the clouds picked their moment to spatter me with rain, as the sun still shone. Autumn pleasures.