Belfast today offers some of the finest dining and best eating out in the UK. Restaurants like James Street South, Muddlers Club, Howard Street and Shu are bywords for innovation and quality and the days when the Northern Irish menu was defined by 101 ways with a potato and the Ulster Fry (the full British plus delicious soda and potato farls which you must try while you’re here) are long gone.
This culinary revolution was started in the 1980s by pioneers like local chef Paul Rankin of Ready, Steady Cook! fame. Although his restaurants have gone, the baton was passed on to entrepreneurs like Michael Deane and Stephen Toman. Deane, who trained at Claridge’s, is the chef-proprietor who put Belfast on the Michelin star map, and he runs an empire of six restaurants to suit all pockets and palates.
Fashions change, though, and Deane has expanded and tweaked his city centre operation, now boasting Love Fish and Michelin-starred Eipic and the Meat Locker, with Hannan’s superb 35-day aged Himalayan beef rump steaks being offered with a classic Bearnaise sauce or as a classy surf’n’turf when paired with a grilled half lobster.
The seafood outfit, Love Fish, still serves the best bistro fish and chips in town. The austerity-beating lunch deals here and at the Meat Locker are well worth investigating while upmarket Eipic offers seasonal produce turned into fine dining with dishes like venison with chicory, mustard and game spice or scallops paired with langoustines, leek and smoked bacon. But if you just want a snack with style, Deane’s Vin Deli is definitely the place to go, with wines to match the food.
Round the corner from the heart of Deane’s empire is the small, perfectly-formed Howard Street restaurant whose sizeable reputation bears no relation to the compact, period premises. Marty Murphy, known for his good work at the much missed Potted Hen, is busy here creating classics by the month. Worthy of note so far are the spiced coconut prawn soup with tom yum, a not over creamy chowder and among the excellent fish dishes, a curried haddock risotto offering with a poached hen’s egg, Thai basil and a curried vinaigrette mixing spiciness, tanginess, creaminess plus a chilli kick.
Deane, trained at Claridge’s, and is the chef-proprietor who put Belfast on the Michelin star map, and he runs an empire of six restaurants to suit all pockets and palates
There is a new confidence in Belfast’s restaurant scene and the tucked-away Muddlers Club illustrates it with panache. In the trendy manner, its location in Warehouse Lane isn’t over-advertised. Once inside this former industrial premises, you get sublime food, reasonably-priced, good wine, no frills and the soundtrack of people having a really good time.
Shu in the Lisburn Road, under chef Brian McCann’s skilful touch also represents the sort of quality that would enhance any city in the UK. The haunt of stars in town such as Natalie Portman and Sarah Jessica Parker, it has a buzzy downstairs bar and dishes like foie gras with spiced pear and raisin chutney, and walnut and raisin bread justify its reputation. They also manage to make something special out of calf tongue, and local foodies have a season ticket.
One area of Belfast that is growing as a culinary byword is the Cathedral Quarter. Hill Street has a range of enticing eateries in attractive to quirky settings. The Grill offers genuinely moreish food (trendy goat’s cheese with beetroot and pecan praline or a steak or the gin battered fish and chips) plus friendly service and slightly risqué art. Round the corner, opposite the great Duke of York bar, is the Dark Horse. Now licensed, this looks like a period gin palace and is a great place for a chat over snacks and small dishes.
In terms of that unquantifiable thing, atmosphere, Coppi in St Anne’s Square, scores highly. This more than decent Italian outfit that won the Ulster Tatler restaurant of the year in 2017 majors in an Italian version of tapas, serving really scrumptious small plates such as crispy pork belly with pickled radicchio and Portavogie prawn crostini. Their mains major in flavour too with their duck and pasta combination an intense winner.
There is a new confidence in Belfast’s restaurant scene and the tucked-away Muddlers Club, brainchild of the team behind Ox, illustrates it with panache
Going for a Chinese has long been a Belfast tradition; with the city’s range of Chinese eateries it’s not hard to understand why. Northern Ireland has a well-established Chinese community, some of whom imported their sweet and sour when they relocated. In Botanic Avenue, part of the boho student quarter, you’ll find established restaurants like Lee Garden that offer the kind of roast duck platters and Oriental pub grub everybody likes. Service is swift and the place is licensed.
If you want a bit of fusion, try Gaze off the Ormeau Road, where the prawns in candy floss-style spun filo pastry with sweet chilli sauce take some beating. Eddie Fung’s Zen restaurant in Adelaide Street has always lived up to the Far Eastern promise of its slightly James Bond decor. Now the newer House of Zen in St Anne’s Square continues the theme, retaining favourites such as the crispy shredded chicken in honey pepper sauce and wok-fried egg noodles.
Belfast’s gastronomic chutzpah is also on show in happening Chinese outfits like Yügo whose fusion menu features Belfast curry, the son in law egg and the Bao with brisket, Kraft cheese, ketchup and mustard. Yes, that’s Kraft as in the fluorescent orange cheese beloved of students. The delicious sandwich references what you might call classic white trash American cooking, now celebrated with a sprinkling of irony in many urban restaurants.
Indian takeaways, carry-outs in the vernacular, form part of the traditional Belfast weekend, but if you want to eat in, you’re spoilt for choice. The Bombay Brasserie dishes up substantial old school sub-continental fare in BT7 while the Cafe Naz, its younger sibling, caters for office groups with the same satisfying chicken korma to lamb biryani routine. For a slightly different Indian restaurant experience, Mumbai 27, in the culinary quarter round the cathedral offers an attractive menu with starters like Horin-Er-MangSho (flamegrilled local venison in tamarind sauce).
Other cuisines are well represented and in Botanic, there is the entertaining Boojum cafe which has just expanded, a Mexican joint that’s part of a chain and named after a line in a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, which offers very good burritos for a reasonable price.
If you want a bit of fusion, try Gaze off the Ormeau Road, where the prawns in candy floss-style spun filo pastry with sweet chilli sauce take some beating
Then there are the Italian restaurants which encompass the rich cuisine favoured by the trattorias that sprang up 20 years ago and some new wave, lighter interpretations. Scalini’s may only have opened in Botanic Avenue in 2001 but its substantial plates of pasta pleasantly illustrate the old style.
It’s a popular haunt and you may have to queue. If you want the sort of pizzas, salads and attention to detail you’d find in Italy, head for the delightfully-named Chubby Cherub in Upper Arthur Street. The decor in this tiny restaurant may be kitsch but the cooking is spot on and the chicken escalope memorable.
Amici is chef Richard Crozier’s newish venture and its contemporary take on Italian cucina is at the other end of the scale. Affordable small plates allow diners to sample a kind of Italian tapas, dipping into the crisp fried scampi served with lime and chervil mayonnaise as well as the squid or chicken liver pate. For mains, you can stay Italian with turbot fillets with olives and wine or go international with pulled pork and spinach.
Plus for everyday Italian fare, there is a decent Pizza Express near the handsome BBC building in Ormeau Avenue. In a way, there are separate strands of cooking and eating in town today, with the new, often foreign cuisine or something consciously contemporary co-existing happily with the variations on a traditional theme.
If you want an enjoyable Friday or Saturday night dinner, try the First Floor Bistro in the Ormeau Road, where Jason Harris, the former owner of Soul Food, works his magic at weekends with everything from local chicken to lamb tagine and retro elements such as gorgeously light profiteroles for pudding.
If you want the sort of pizzas, salads and attention to detail you’d find in Italy, head for the delightfully-named Chubby Cherub in Upper Arthur Street
On to fish and chips, Northern Irish soul food, a favourite that quite a few places do justice to. Café Fish in the Lisburn Road, a bit of an institution, Long’s in Athol Street, and King’s fish and chips on the Ormeau Road whose cod suppers are massive and excellent (remember you get a significant chip garnish with the fish so you won’t have to buy a large bag of chips) will satisfy that need for something involving batter, salt and fried potatoes.
If you like fish, you have to visit Mourne Seafood Bar, tucked away in the city centre in Bank Street. Its simple wooden interior and emphasis on the freshest seafood makes you feel you’re beside the seaside, beside the sea. Try the Oysters Rockefeller for a rich, cooked bivalve, or maybe their fried crab claws with chilli sauce.
If you enjoy dining by the water, Cutter’s Wharf fits the bill as it overlooks the River Lagan, which bisects Belfast and is used by sculling students. Downstairs, there is a nice bar and a bar snack menu but upstairs is the perfect setting for dinner or a good Sunday lunch.
If afternoon tea is your bag, head for Belfast’s uber-chic Fitzwilliam Hotel next to the Grand Opera House. They do the works, including Devon clotted cream with your scones and ham, smoked salmon and free range chicken finger sandwiches, plus champagne if you’re in the mood, for about £20 a head.
If you like fish, you have to visit Mourne Seafood Bar, tucked away in the city centre in Bank Street
But if you want a cup of decent coffee, make for the Ormeau Road where between The Bakery and the Pavilion Bar there are now around nine cafes, including a hipster joint called General Merchants and a great vegan known simply as 387 Ormeau Road. There is also, for ice cream addicts, a marvellous El Gelato offering the cold stuff and a cup of coffee.
You could say Belfast, with approximately 450 restaurants in the Greater Belfast area, has it all in terms of eating out options. We even do Kathmandu cuisine, thanks to the Kathmandu Kitchen in Botanic. Bon appetit!
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