Wine & Brine, located in Moira, Co Armagh, made headlines last year when it beat thousands of restaurants across the UK to be named the overall winner of Best Restaurant of the Year - despite only opening its doors a few months previously.
Now just over a year since it first opened, respected chef Chris McGowan and his business partner wife Davina continue to put Northern Ireland’s growing food and restaurant scene firmly on the map after they were recognised with the highly-coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand.
It is also the only NI restaurant so far to be shortlisted for the Cateys, widely hailed as the Oscars equivalent of the food industry.
Michelin-star trained Chris, who previously worked in London’s top restaurants for 22 years with world-renowned chefs including Richard Corrigan, Pierre Koffmann and Gary Rhodes, explained that he and his wife always knew they would return to Northern Ireland.
“My wife Davina is originally from Ballymena and I’m from Coleraine, so we always knew that eventually we’d like to come home and put down roots here.
“We picked Moira because we wanted somewhere just outside Belfast, yet it’s just a quick 20-minute drive away from the city centre and offers a bit of an escape for customers without having to travel too far.
“It also has great rail links and is just off the motorway.”
Reflecting on winning such esteemed accolades so early on, Chris explained: “We opened Wine & Brine with a focus of delivering local, high-quality, seasonal food which is why we opened in an area with an abundance of local growers nearby, particularly with Comber so close which has a great food agriculture scene.
“The longevity of a good restaurant is down to people feeling relaxed and at ease, and that’s exactly how we want our diners to feel at Wine & Brine - like they are in their home away from home.
“We definitely feel we have that, especially with our open kitchen which allows you to see our chefs at work making your food from scratch, which really adds to the relaxed atmosphere.
“That’s all we set out to do, which is why we were delighted just to be nominated for the Good Food Guide awards - but to actually win and find out that we’d been recognised by our peers in this incredible way so soon after opening our doors was just such fantastic recognition and reaffirmed that we were doing what we wanted to do and doing it well.
“Then to be given the Michelin Bib Gourmand felt like such an achievement.
“On top of all of this, we found out that we have been shortlisted for the national Catey awards.
“They seek to acknowledge restaurants that are locally-driven and who use fresh, seasonal produce, changing up their menu and bringing in new options regularly.”
The news comes as Wine & Brine changes their lunch menu each week.
With just 12 restaurants shortlisted altogether, Chris said it was an honour for Wine & Brine to represent the only Northern Irish restaurant so far to be nominated.
“It’s an incredible feeling just to be acknowledged, it’s nice to even be in the mix,” Chris said.
Despite its focus on high-quality, local food, Wine & Brine has been consistently praised for its prices.
“Myself and Davina created Wine & Brine with the ethos of bringing high-quality, local food to everyone,” Chris explained.
“With that in mind we wanted to keep prices accessible which is important to us.
“Firstly, our ethos of supporting local means that we don’t buy internationally, so we don’t have that transport cost. We also try to use as many local growers as possible, some of whom work exclusively with us.
“We only use wild fish, caught in Northern Ireland water on bay boats, and when it comes to our locally sourced meat we use all the trimmings by creating new, unique dishes whilst all food comes to us unprepped, which is unusual to get nowadays. It’s all just about good housekeeping!”
Speaking about their innovative menu, Chris hailed his knowledgable staff for Wine & Brine’s success.
“What our customers find when they discover Wine & Brine for the first time is warm hospitality, a friendly environment and staff that know their product - and that is key,” he said.
“Myself and Davina employ 23 members of staff altogether and without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
“We pride ourselves on our ingenuity and serving up interesting things, so our staff knowing our menu inside and out is all part of it.
“ A lot of our food is a new experience for most people and it’s important that our staff can help guide them through our menu.
“We work hard as a collective, we all contribute and there is great opportunity to grow.
“There is such a real team spirit here with everyone putting in long hours, but you get back what you put in.”
Speaking of the Northern Ireland restaurant scene, Chris had high praise for the local work ethic.
“It’s really refreshing to work with people here, especially after working for so long across the water. Whilst they might not have the same experience as you might get across the water, people here don’t let that hold them back.
“Everyone we have worked with in Northern Ireland is so up for the challenge, passionate and they have a great work ethic, a willingness to prove themselves. It’s good because we’re a team that’s up for a challenge!”
In fact, in his bid to emphasise the importance of supporting local food suppliers, Chris is preparing to collaborate with a nearby charcuterie specialist to develop a Northern Ireland cured ham.
“For me it’s really important that we have a Northern Irish food heritage, and I want to see local hams that we cure ourselves rather than buying it in.
“I am really focused on this and it’s something I really want to do well.”
Discussing the burgeoning Northern Ireland food and drink scene, Chris added: “I believe we need to continue to put our food scene on the map. We have a vibrant food scene, we need to shout about it more.
“As a country, Northern Ireland punches well above its weight in terms of food, just look at the Great Taste Awards and the quality of the entrants.
“We are fast becoming known as a food destination capital, particularly with the young chefs coming up from within Northern Ireland.”
In addition to creating the locally cured ham, Chris and Davina now plan to extend the cookery school side of the business in a bid to encourage local talent.
“There is a definite demand from passionate young chefs in Northern Ireland. In fact, we released dates for special masterclasses and within two weeks they had sold out.”
“I think there is a bit of a stigma attached to the restaurant industry which we have to overcome by being aware and trying to create a better environment.
“Yes we work long, unforgiving hours sometimes but the rewards are immense - you definitely out of it what you put in.
“More so than at any other time, the world is looking at Northern Ireland for our good food.
“The young restaurant scene here is buzzing, there are so many young talented chefs doing wonderful things - we need to give ourselves the credit we fully deserve.”