A generous recommendation by a highly regarded local chef led us to the Custom House, a beautiful newcomer that has seriously raised the culinary bar in Derry city.
Lying in the shadow of the Guildhall, first impressions of this historic stone building leave customers in no doubt that this is a seriously classy place. The building is listed and dates back to 1876, but in 2008 it was acquired by a local family and renovation began to convert the building to a three storey bar and restaurant.
No expense has been spared and, once inside, the setting is bold and magnificent, with lots of dark wood and opulent furnishings. Sparkling chandeliers, black and white tiled floors and the use of mirrors give the interior a plush art-deco feel that creates a fun and stylish atmosphere.
The ground floor bar is open all day but is at its best at night, when dark wood furniture, heavy embroidered fabrics, a plush sparkly bar and retro mirrors all create a sense of anticipation and set the tone for an evening of luxury and comfort.
The main dining space on the first floor continues this luxurious tone, where diners can survey the buzz of the kitchen pass or enjoy views out over the River Foyle. Tables are simply set with white linen napkins, contemporary silver cutlery and glassware, yet the setting - which is split-level and includes a choice of private booths - is plush.
But the Custom House isn’t just about style over substance. Derry is renowned for its hospitable people and the friendly staff at the Custom House are no exception; impeccably turned out, professional and polite, they make a major contribution to the dining experience here – and the food more than lives up to the setting.
Menus offered include dinner, lunch and a dedicated one for children - but they don’t give too much away, with minimal dish descriptions and not so much as a hint of the provenance of ingredients which is unusual at any level these days, and especially in an establishment where quality clearly counts.
You’ll find plenty of familiar dishes, with a range of light dishes (soup, sandwiches, salads and pasta) at lunchtime and a full à la carte in the evening. The dinner menu sees an emphasis on steaks (choice of four), chicken (five)and meats (six) and there is also fresh fish (six), as one would expect with the fishing ports of Donegal nearby, although just three vegetarian choices.
All are popular dishes – starters like chicken Caesar, or Custom House paté with toast and chutney; main courses including roast or chargrilled chicken, crispy pork belly, and braised lamb shank – and it’s unlikely here will be any big surprises, so what makes this place special?
The answer lies in the kitchen: although no chef is named on menus there is clearly somebody talented in charge and the Custom House kitchen brigade is a well oiled machine, turning out bold, uncomplicated plates of succulent food with big flavours; using a handful of carefully chosen ingredients and good sauces to elevate each dish, the food here is skilfully executed with style and passion.
Portion sizes are well judged and you should leave some room for dessert, especially with delicious old favourites on offer, such as sticky toffee pudding (a triumph of rich light sponge, surrounded by a sweet buttery toffee sauce, with a spoonful of really good vanilla ice-cream on top) or apple tart, all rounded off with aromatic Illy coffee.
The wine list offers a good selection by both the glass and bottle, including several new world wines of note. Each wine carries a short tasting description and, although moderately priced overall, the list includes a selection of ‘Special Occasion wines’, in the £30+ price bracket.
Given the current financial climate, is it refreshing to experience a new establishment that has gone for glamour and is providing customers with faultless and stylish dining at a fair price. The Custom House may be priced above most Derry restaurants but the whole experience, including the luxurious setting, excellent staff and beautifully cooked food gives value for money and creates a sense of occasion.
The Custom House is a great addition to the Northern Ireland dining scene and should enhance the reputation of Derry City as a dining destination, as well as providing a stylish night out or special occasion venue for the lucky locals - and perhaps a business venue too, as there are several private rooms available, including one set up with a boardroom table.