South Belfast is the only civilised part of Northern Ireland, a place of red-brick elegance and Neff kitchen appliances, where the residents dress well and plan their skiing holidays in private.
By comparison, everywhere else is coming down with monster flat screen tellies, ashtrays mounted on walls and payday loans.
A tiny enclave within south Belfast which has defined its borders along the Lisburn and Malone roads from Wellington Park Avenue to Malone Park, is the most expensive bit of the city. It came into its own shortly after the Edwardian era and has remained more or less the same ever since — an elegant, leafy-avenued residential district with parks and uncluttered footpaths, good bus services, delis, coffee shops and well-equipped schools.
It is often regarded as elitist and nobby. Yet, judging by the kinds of shops, bars and restaurants in the district, the people who live there don’t have spectacularly outlandish tastes. If anything, the area so robustly promoted by Belfast City Council member Mairtin O Muilleoir, encourages a conservative and suburban approach to city living. Range Rovers might be allowed but Maseratis are frowned upon. The ubiquitous motor here is the more unassuming and sensible BMW 3-series.
Which may explain the ongoing popularity of the Chelsea Wine Bar. If I give you three seconds to imagine in your head the kind of person who is a regular in the Chelsea, chances are you will have in mind a white man in his fifties with an outgoing personality and a great line in entertaining anecdotes. He’ll also be reliable.
The Chelsea Wine Bar has a lot of atmosphere and craic. I’ve never been in the downstairs bar when there wasn’t a bit of banter in the place. It may not be the ideal place to go alone for a quiet pint, but upstairs, couples will sit comfortably enjoying just that, an intimate drink in comfort.
The Chelsea upstairs is good for this. The staff are bright and friendly, unobtrusive and quick. The wine list is appropriately extensive and remarkably well priced, particularly if you look at the bin-ends section where wines priced at £60 a bottle are reduced to £25 or less.
Also upstairs is the restaurant. It scores highly in Tripadvisor and other commentators and critics have said good things about the place, particularly its lunches.
So it was no surprise to see the Chelsea’s recent engagement in Twitter, telling anyone who’d listen, the content of their brunches, or specials on the day’s menu. I’m always a sucker for a good sales pitch so a visit on Saturday night last week was quickly arranged.
A big round table in the bay of a window allowed five of us so much room that I started to receive texts from the advisor after trying spoken conversation.
The reasonably priced menus showed some ambition: pan-seared scallops with black pudding, pea puree and caulifower beignets stood out among the chicken wings, ribs and nachos. There was roast spatchcocked poussin with boulangere potatoes, Indonesian chicken curry and jambalaya among the otherwise humdrum mains of burger, battered haddock and vegetable lasagne.
The mood (it was freezing and snowing outside) meant inclinations veered towards spice and heat and when the dishes came the
volumes were clearly super generous, as you’d expect from the Chelsea. But where quantity was plentiful, quality was lacking.
The satay skewers had no flavour bar a bit of peanut coming through. The chicken did not appear to have been marinated at all and the satay sauce poured on at the last minute. The jambalaya looked the part, all moist and high density with rice, tomato, chilli and peppers but the chorizo, shrimp and chicken generated little excitement and tasted of very little.
The advisor, always a burger fan, said the pattie was high quality beef but the raw onion, slice of tomato and melted-on cheddar were a pretty low grade way to present the thing.
I’m still a huge fan of the Chelsea because as a wine bar and hub it works well, attracting all sorts, making everyone (servant classes, busted property developers and smug professionals) feel equal. It has a great wine list and the place itself is attractive, bright and (apart from those draughts upstairs) comfortable. But the food this particular night shows weakness. The prices are low and it shows in the food. Which is a shame as the front of house staff do so well.
Garlic bread £3
Ribs x 2 £11.90
Satay starter £5.95
Nachos x 2 £9
Pork belly £10.95
Satay mains x 2 £19.90
Diet Coke x 3 £5.70
Pint Staropramen £3.95
Bottle cab sauv £20
Sprite Zero £1.90
346 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 6GH
Tel: 028 90687177