The Merchant Hotel goes from strength to strength with the opening of Bert’s, a cosy new bar serving good food to sweet sounds.
The New Chapter, Belfast’s newest food and hospitality offering, is the kind of creation that could only come from the imagination and graft of a man steeped in the cultural fabric of Ulster and Ireland. Already king of the sector with his luxury-hotel-to-pizza-chain group, Bill Wolsey has an eye for heritage and history.
The Merchant Hotel — which fronts grandly onto Waring Street in the former Ulster Bank headquarters, a 150-year-old Palladian cathedral to commerce — is an award-winning place that has not just proved itself as a brilliant hotel but also boasts an excellent restaurant. It is also acknowledged among architects and surveyors as one of the great restoration projects of the city.
For fans of Wolsey, the good news is that the Merchant now has a twin, the New Chapter, which fronts the High Street. The two are joined like Siamese siblings back to back.
One could be unkind about the Sixties Soviet-inspired front elevation of the New Chapter and how the building seems to have sprouted boldly and loudly from the Merchant’s behind, but that would be pointless. Rather, Bill Wolsey may have taken his cue from one of the most ancient cultural icons of Ulster, one that dates back to pagan times — the mysterious two-faced Janus stone sculpture that still stands in a field in Fermanagh, one face staring north while the other looks south.
Swathed in plush red velvet, leather and drapes, Bert’s Jazz Bar is on the ground floor of the High Street-facing Merchant. It is a welcoming yet posh brasserie kind of place. There are many just like it all over Paris evoking a kind of belle-epoque mood but Bert’s has an added ingredient, a touch of magic from the most famous jazz club of them all in London’s Soho — Ronnie Scott’s.
And the food is not bad, either. A lunch there last week showed that things were pretty much right from the start (the New Chapter, as the annexe housing Bert’s, meeting rooms, bedrooms, beauty salon etc, is called, hasn’t officially been opened yet).
A starter of scallops wrapped in Bayonne ham was a fair price at £10 for four of them. While the ham was slightly too strong a partner for the delicate scallops — the mellow, deep porkiness was excellent and very tasty but overwhelming in this context — the dish itself was appetising with a little tomato salad and sorrel aioli. The following hake with seafood and crushed potatoes was a better balance and its sturdiness in flavour and composition was reassuring and attractive.
The hake was beautifully cooked. A fillet with crispy skin and moisty, flaky white meat within topped a generous round bed of crushed potatoes surrounded by various characters from Strangford Lough — langoustines, scallops, mussels. Drenched in melted garlic butter and well seasoned, the hake was a distinct harbinger of winter but even on this bright August day it worked a treat.
A more modest goat’s cheese quiche across the table was pronounced to be excellent by my lunch buddy. Having opted for a spartan vegetarian meal of pea soup followed by the quiche (more for pre-beach body prepping reasons rather than for any lofty ethical requirement) he turned out to be a cheap date and wasn’t disappointed. The pea soup was a bit on the thin side perhaps, but maybe that’s because I am only used to the big, thick winter versions rather than this lighter summer version.
The quiche was accompanied by a decently moist and crunchy salad to provide relief for the dried-out desert conditions a good goat’s cheese will immediately create in your palate. Excellent elderflower granite — a kind of Slush Puppy for grown-ups — for dessert and a lemon posset finished off the meal with a smile.
The service is not yet polished but it is very keen to please. Young men in long white aprons concentrate hard on not dropping stuff as they bring it to your table and they receive every request with intense attention. Give them another couple of weeks and they’ll be gliding through the room, beaming confidently.
Bert’s Jazz Bar is an excellent lunchtime venue and great addition to Belfast’s repertoire. It is also good for breakfast and judging by the breakfast menu — crispy bacon mini baguette, three-egg omelette with Irish dry cured ham and Gloebe Breton cheese, eggs benedict, French toast and so on — it will do a roaring trade in the morning, too. But it is at night that the restaurant should really come into its own.
A battalion of little table lamps is stored on a back shelf ready for evening service. Remember Joe Pesci in Goodfellas arriving in the nightclub, clicking his fingers for a table near the stage for his molls and friends and being immediately attended to by a waiter who brings a table and chairs right to the front and plonks down a little lit lamp in the middle of it? That’s Bert’s.
I can’t wait to see the scene repeated. One thing’s for sure, with jazz on five nights a week, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to act the big lad in there.
3 glasses wine £18
Inclusive service £7.21