Food & Wine

101 Restaurants: Dive into these Ulster eateries

You’ll want to plan a visit north to try all of these locations

Ryan Jenkins in Roam: a self-taught chef of incredible talent. Picture: Pacemaker

Our 101 Great Irish Restaurants guide, sponsored by Nespresso Professional, includes restaurants from all over the country that serve up delicious food, offer wonderful service, and are well worth a visit.

Whittling the lists down to just 101 listings was no easy task, which is a testament to the sheer number of quality outlets that can now be found around the island of Ireland. We hope this guide will be one you refer to again and again throughout the year when deciding where to eat. Read on for the restaurants in Ulster that made the cut in our 101 Great Irish Restaurants guide.

Roam, Belfast,

Every dark alley should have a Roam. Self-taught chef Ryan Jenkins, a talented footballer, is surprisingly fancy-fingered, creating hyper delicate and fragile amuse bouches and snacks which immediately raises the first time visitor’s eyebrows.

If the snacks are this good, what’s to come? An unfeasibly deep pottery bowl three-quarters filled with a bouillon in which lurk a couple of chicken thighs and crunchy, bright green leaves. It is a life-giving broth of great intensity and delicacy, something which would probably reverse the ageing process if you supped a bowl of it every day.

There is ling with fat mussels, samphire, cauliflower puree and beurre blanc. Elsewhere there is a flat iron, a lamb rump and sexy things like grilled greens with miso onion and beef sauce, chanterelles and turnip. And you must order the crushed roast potatoes.

The Olde Glen Bar, Carrickart, Donegal,

It would be too easy for a chef of the calibre of Ciaran Sweeney, a Donegal man formerly of the excellent Forest & Marcy in Dublin, to return with all his fancy ideas from the metropolis and impose urban cookery on the locals. This would jar with the spirit of the place. Instead, he has created a menu which demanding Dubs would appreciate on the one hand, but which actually matches the mood of a country pub on the other.

Fermented potato bread with bacon and Gortahurk cabbage, roast Mulroy scallops with chickpea purée, chorizo and smoked paprika salsa verde, house-smoked Donegal salmon with glazed Ballyholey beetroots, horseradish and buttermilk dressing are among the must-have starters.

Artis, Derry city,

Derry doesn’t do fancy, high-fallootin’ posh dining. Except that it does, but doesn’t let on. Ian Orr’s solid Brown’s on the Waterside is one such posh joint. However, by and large, people here prefer informal, dressed-down quality. But where there are rules there are exceptions. Artis unashamedly piles acres of pressed white linen and sparkling crystal on its tables so it looks and feels high-end, yet it also lets its hair down.

Chef Phelim O’Hagan’s Derry salad is one of the greatest culinary satires in Ireland. Containing the classic boiled egg, ham, lettuce, beetroot, cheese and salad cream, it is raised to a level never before seen. The flavours are all there but amplified – the cheese is smoked, the egg is confit.

Instead of a cup of tea and two slices of buttered sliced pan, you’ll probably be having the decent Chardonnay from Bourgogne and some toasted sourdough. And that salad cream is not from Heinz.

MacNean House and Restaurant, Blacklion, Cavan,

Every dish in MacNean House looks like a winner in a miniature Chelsea Flower Show. Like tiny but lush and sometimes overgrown gardens, dishes of crispy goat’s cheeses adorned with herbs and flowers, or braised shoulder of lamb surrounded by pearl barley, more leaves and flowers, and beautifully rendered root vegetables, have the greatest visual appeal.

There’s a sense of extraordinary joy and exuberance on every plate as well as elements of humour and comedy – the passion fruit and ginger beer sorbet will help you understand why.

28 At The Hollow, Enniskillen, Fermanagh,

In recent years, husband and wife team Glen Wheeler and Zara McHugh have decamped from 28 Darling Street over to the town’s most photogenic pub, Blakes of the Hollow, beneath which lies a vaulted basement and their restaurant.

Wheeler produces magnificent classic dishes including seafood risotto, confit of duck and pan-fried hake with red pepper orzo, confit fennel and Romanesco. Even cod, a fish so boring you’d nearly be better getting some coley or gurnard (lol!), is brought to life in the hands of this man with pearl barley, wild mushroom and smoked aubergine purée.

Waterman, Belfast,

Everything about this dining room says Soviet hero workers’ collective tractor factory refectory, a place so democratic you’d be happy to eat alone wearing your overalls. Yet this is a cool style illusion, and the former government building now adorned with a multi-framed city scape of Belfast by Colin Davidson is home to some of the best bistro food in the city.

There is no borscht, sauerkraut or pickled herring from the east. Instead, we head to Europe’s west and south with Carlingford oysters, spit-roast chicken, curried scallops and beef ragu pappardelle.

The oysters are London prices at £3.50 each, but the sting is softened by the rhubarb mignonette which is such a surprisingly good match, the bittersweet rhubarb and vinegar a perfect foil for the cool, sweet and briny oysters. The sheer pleasure generated by chef Aaron McNeice’s beautifully created dishes is worth the din.

Deane’s at Queen’s, Belfast,

Still one of the airiest and most peaceful dining rooms in the north, Deane’s at Queen’s has been a go-to for family celebrations for years. Head chef Chris Fearon is a fish master, and his whole John Dory, roasted crisp and perfectly moist and firm, is one of the best you’ll ever have.

There are standards that have become signatures: the salad with whipped St Tola is unforgettably textured and crunchy, the whipped cheese bitter and soft in perfect contrast. Ham hock, garden peas and spinach, mascarpone with a scattering of crispy fried shallots in a sublime, creamy risotto is another belter, but Fearon also does a breadcrumbed Korean chicken with wasabi aioli which delivers cheap street kicks with a bang.

Lir in Coleraine: sublime food and a wonderful welcome. Picture: Pacemaker

Lir, Coleraine,

There’s a friendly eccentricity lying just beneath the polished surface of Lir. This comes largely from manager Clare Smyth, who blends kooky humour with deep knowledge (especially of wine) and an instinctive sense of hospitality.

In the kitchen Stevie McCarry, the man who gave us Native Seafood in nearby Portstewart, is making intriguing monkfish sausage rolls. Glorious in their austere presentation with only a dollop of fermented chilli ketchup as company, these are brilliantly executed – the pastry golden and flaky, the fish within firm and juicy.

Elsewhere are marvellous barley and Kylemore Kilnahan arancini with garlic emulsion and house pickles, a sublime sirloin on the bone from McConnell’s in Donegal accompanied by a shallot tarte tatin, fish and exceptional chips with a historic homemade tartare, and a Greencastle hake kiev with the lightest, butteriest chopped hispi.

Pearson Morris (left) and Saul McConnell in Noble

Noble, Holywood, Down,

Covid couldn’t wipe out this tiny restaurant, which turned to Noble At Home boxes for survival. The restaurant is back but those boxes are still so popular they haven’t gone away, and you can order chef Pearson Morris’s three-coursers for collection.

Noble’s Sunday lunches are legendary, with baseball glove-sized Yorkies, but the steak tartare with Bloody Mary dressing and sourdough fried in beef dripping is not to be missed. If you’ve ever had a good bullshot you’re getting the idea.

Look out for the blackboard specials which, for a bit of a supplement, beckon loudly. There are starters of crab on toast, Portavogie prawns in garlic butter with sourdough, or hake Kiev and tartare sauce. There are also fillet steaks, rib-eyes and a chateaubriand so good you’ll never stoop to a côte de boeuf again.

Wine & Brine, Moira, Down,

Consistency is king at Wine & Brine. Chef patron Chris McGowan has the discipline of a headmaster and the creativity of an artist, as well as the slick delivery mechanism of a well-oiled machine in his dining room.

Everything works well, from the crispy olives to the twice-baked cheese souffle and blood orange baba with rum and raisins. Flavours, textures, generous portions and attention to detail in the kitchen are matched out front in the bright, naturally lit dining room, staffed by people who care.

Simon Toye in Stove: the Ormeau Road restaurant is as popular as ever. Picture: Pacemaker

Stove, Belfast,

Simon Toye, formerly of the Meat Locker, and Simon McCance, currently of Ginger Bistro, ignited a whole new world of hipsterdom on the Ormeau Road with their new joint venture. Toye is now in charge and his upstairs restaurant above a cancer charity shop and an Indian curry house is as popular as ever.

The menu is a delightful teaser, with amuse bouches of Comté fritters and oysters served with apple, dill and fermented cucumber among them. There is an impressive charcuteries board of Lisdergan bresaola and salamis.

Starters feature potato and onion soup with buttery croutons and Toons Bridge mozzarella with fancy tomatoes, watercress and pesto. It has an Uno Mas resonance but being in Belfast, is more modest in presentation. But Toye’s food is a belter and his staff are among the best in town.

Stevie Toman in Ox: continues to strive for excellence and improvement. Picture: Press Eye

Ox, Belfast,

Everyone knows Ox is outstanding, but we can’t talk about Belfast or Ulster restaurants and not mention it, because chef Stevie Toman has not lost any of that thirst for excellence and improvement.

Even if some dishes he prepares using fig leaves from the Ards Peninsula won’t convince everybody, his lunches and dinners are still the number one choice in the north.

The hand of Stevie’s business partner Alain Kerloc’h is still a huge influence, which means unheard of wines from barely mentioned regions of the world, unparalleled cocktails (ask James for the lemon gimlet) and vegetable-based dishes which will delight meat eaters as much as vegetarians.

The Muddlers Club, Belfast,

A motorcycle chain swinging in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other, Muddler’s is like a hip, hard and happenin’ embodiment of chef patron and tattooed biker Gareth McCaughey.

Its colourful and moody dining room is attended by staff who understand hospitality. The food is ever-changing and exciting, and McCaughey has created a unique blend of atmosphere and quality with zero self-consciousness. You become a cool dude when you enter the place.

He is like his friend Stevie Toman in Ox in that he’s always in pursuit of excellence, which accounts for the unforgettable blackened Mourne lamb, rainbow trout and “punk rock venison”.

Browns Bonds Hill, Derry city,

Chef Ian Orr was always ambitious and delivered the best quality dishes in the city. Now Browns is back with turf-smoked beef tartare, tarragon and grilled sourdough, Inch House black pudding, pan-fried scallops and roast chicory, new-season lamb rump, braised shoulder, and lamb fat potato terrine with confit tomato. And did we mention the banging Sri Lankan curry cod dish?

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