Chris and Davina McGowan's restaurant in Moira, County Down, is fast earning a reputation as a local gem. Suzie McCracken reports
Chris McGowan is home. After 20 years in London, working with Bruno Loubet, Gary Rhodes, Pierre Koffmann and Richard Corrigan, the chef has returned to Northern Ireland with his wife, Davina, to launch what is now officially, according to The Good Food Guide, the UK's best local restaurant.
Not that they weren't getting affirmation from their regulars. Wine & Brine is located in Moira, a village of around 4,000 people in County Down. It has a reputation for produce - the restaurant shares the high street with two Great Taste supreme champions, Peter Hannan's meat and McCartney's butchers - but until recently the culinary contingent was made up solely of cafés. The restaurant opened in December 2014 and already the locals feel bereft when it shuts down for a holiday.
That feeling has a lot to do with the exemplary hospitality that Davina and her front-of-house staff expertly dish out for over 140 covers on a Saturday night and often 80 for lunch. But there's also an amazing sense of a growing food scene in the country. Northern Ireland's 2016 Year of Food and Drink has fanned the embers of a foodie movement that is apparent in the new Michelin stars that have been awarded to Belfast establishments Eipic and Ox. Chris calls the accolades "long overdue".
But how has he made it work in Moira? I'm gently scolded for suggesting there might not be the same foodie credentials here as in town. "People are a lot more informed," says Chris. "I sold out of wild rabbit last night - that wouldn't have happened here five years ago, but now people are willing to try things."
They're even willing to try things that are pickled, fermented, preserved and, of course, brined. "We chose the name because of my background with Richard Corrigan and his nose-to-tail philosophy and use of old cooking methods. Here we have a very clean, simple approach, but the technical aspect of the food is in the process beforehand, " says Chris.
In line with this doctrine, the menu features cuts of meat like ox cheek and tongue, and local produce is used in unexpected ways. Mike's Fancy Cheese in Newtownards provides wheys left over from the creation of its Young Buck blue cheese, and Chris uses it as a brine for Mourne Mountain lamb. "These are natural ways of adding flavour," he says.
Chris is wary of the 'brine' aspect being seen as schtick, however. "It's not quirky; it's what we've been doing for hundreds of years… we source products really carefully and we are sympathetic to them with these methods."
He name-checks Kettyle Irish foods in Lisnaskee, County Fermanagh, for its beef, and Ewing's in Belfast for its wild-caught fish as trusted suppliers. The standard of the produce is undoubtedly a reason why diners are so receptive to Chris's experimentation, but it also helps that Wine & Brine is relaxed. The couple designed the interior, creating a clean, contemporary space, adorned with portraits of Irish literary figures by local artist Jonathan Aiken. There's also plenty of space for expansion - they have plans to add a bar upstairs and a kitchen garden on one of the roofs.
Red mullet escabeche
The wine list is put together by the couple with help from suppliers, and includes varieties not often seen on local lists. "We push wines like New Zealand Pinot Noirs for barbecued meats and the GrÁ¼ner Veltliner for the scallop ceviche," says Davina.
Another pillar of the restaurant's ethos is its generosity. "At lunch we try and keep it £3/£8/£3, because we're surrounded by coffee shops," says Chris. Davina says that Chris "can't help himself". "He will do you pea and ham soup, but he'll have to put a toastie on the side. You can walk out of here having had a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee and a free madeleine for under £6," she says. The average evening spend on the Á la carte creeps up to £50-£55.
Crispy hen's egg, wild garlic, salt cod
I suggest that in addition to its keenly priced menu that a sense of being brought into the family as you enter Wine & Brine might be the couple's savviest marketing move.
"Yes, I think that's why a lot of these customers come back all the time," says Davina. "We walk down the street and people say, 'It's great to have you here'. We can't believe our luck."
"It's down to us making the customers feel that it's their place," adds Chris. "I genuinely believe it's theirs."
Wild duck, beetroot leaves
From the menu
- Cod cheeks, oyster mayo £4.50
- Crubeens £4
- Portavogie prawn, shrimp, crab cocktail with scallop tempura £8
- Pressed country terrine, beetroot chutney, crispy bits £5
- Organic chicken, girolles, pickled endive £16
- Pan-roasted stone bass, squid stuffed chorizo, parsley sauce £15
- Rump of Mourne lamb, slow-cooked shoulder, charred lettuce, curd £16
Sides (all at £3.50)
- Mixed leaves
- Tomato and red onion salad
- Hand-cut chips
- Purple sprouting broccoli
Wine & Brine
115 Main Street, Moira, Craigavon BT67 0LQ
Goats' curd, heritage beetroot
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