Just when you think Belfast has claimed its rightful place on the international tourism map, bits start to fall off.
The new Titanic Centre (displayed in the most hallucinatory light show last weekend — the entire building seemed to dance along the quays in a blaze of psychedelic animation and colour) has been acknowledged around the world; the six-storey MAC performance arts centre opens next week with Lowry, Conor and McCafferty; and the Festival of Fools promises to be funnier, madder and badder than ever.
Meanwhile, however, the burgeoning portfolio of great little bistros and brasseries in and around Belfast is showing signs of fatigue. Restaurants that were coming along nicely, creating a breadth of quality choices up until recently, have been disappointing.
There was a point in the last 12 months at which bistro-type restaurants across the city were pretty much reliable and a safe bet. I’m not so sure these days and am grateful for exceptions like Café Vaudeville, The Bar & Grill in James St South, Il Pirata and now Ace.
Housed in the large shed that was formerly home to the Gourmet Burger Bank, Ace is Belfast’s slightly mangled and twisted answer to New York’s Pastis and London’s Spuntino. It’s all recycled doors nailed together this way and that to create room breaks, crazy timbers and funny furniture. It’s a dining room that takes its design cues from a Disney treehouse created for jolly japes and children’s adventures. More darkly, it has a touch of the post-defence-industrial-complex, secret-slum-dwelling vibe to offer a bit of edgy cool to younger ones who have yet to live a full life.
But never mind any of this because the food is fabulous. Michael O’Connor has been choppered in from the Barking Dog to get the show on the road, and some of the dishes are memorable. For a place that wants to treat the whole dining experience with a complete lack of self-consciousness and unaffected insouciance, the service is appropriately relaxed but efficient. The mood might be urban refugee camp canteen, but the servers are still on their best behaviour.
Thank goodness the food hasn’t fallen into the squid ’n’ steak class now swamping Belfast. Instead, there are much cooler dishes to choose from. Among the half dozen burgers, which remain as a tribute to the Gourmet Burger Bank that stood proudly here for seven years dispensing the best burgers in the city, there are things you won’t have seen before.
The New York bit of Ace’s menu contains an all-day brunch where you’ll find porridge with honey sugar or roast banana, toasted muffins, granola, bacon butties and so on, none of which costs more than £4.50.
The small plates can be viewed as starters and include spiced aubergine chips with mint yoghurt and honeyed feta, and sesame filo pie. But once you get into the category defined as ‘Dogs and Sliders’ you are entering my beloved world of filthy pop food: spiced corn dog with Boston baked beans; BBQ pulled pork slider with spiced ‘slaw; beef onions slider with Swiss cheese. This is sustenance for survivalists. The advisor was keen on the pulled pork slider with the gorgeously bitter ‘slaw — in fact, she said it was hellishly good.
The quinoa superfood salad was the act of contrition I needed to make before indulging in the sauerkraut dog with Swiss. Pomegranate, raisins and watercress mixed wonderfully with crunchy bulgar wheat, a bit like posh cous cous, to create a very textured salad, one you could enjoy for hours as the little balls of wheat pop and crack in the mouth. The sauerkraut dog would have been brilliant had a pukka Frankfurter been used rather than an organic, goody-two-shoes sausage.
Never mind, because the best thing to appear that night was the spiced pork, fennel and chilli sausage goulash. Served in a big iron pot, topped with a ghostly soup spoon full of crème fraiche, the goulash had everything: deep paprika flavours that warmed your breath, chewy textures of solid sausage and strands of pork meat. Sensational.
There is much more on the menu, including a very popular Southern fried chicken burger, but it’s wonderful to see things here we haven’t seen in a long time.
Quinoa salad £5
Hummus and pitta £3
Chicken wings £4
Chorizo slider £4
Classic burger £6
Chips x 2 £5
Diet Coke x 2 £3
Glass Ancora sangiovese x2 £7.50
Bottle IPA beer £4
Glass pomegranate juice £2