For those seeking good Italian food at lunch,the trendy Chubby Cherub is heaven-sent.
Some weeks back I gave off about how the heart of Belfast is so poorly equipped when it comes to Italian restaurants. Villa Italia, the old family and student favourite (with one of the best risotto dishes in the city), is too far out to qualify as a quick lunch house for city office workers.
Meanwhile, the team at AM:PM in Upper Arthur Street, who had quietly established a tiny Italian restaurant in the very aorta of the city’s heart, behind Donegall Square East, remained silent about their recent venture. Even though the Chubby Cherub already has a loyal band of followers, it now deserves to be fully exposed.
The Chubby Cherub, designed by the same creative mind which produces teenage girls' jewellery boxes and then adds an indoor vineyard for that nice touch of authenticity, is all twinkly lights, painted renaissance angel frescoes (overhead leafy vines), little gilt-framed pictures of even more babies with wings and acres of padded and studded white leatherette covering tables, banquettes and bits of furniture.
It is so feminine that when I took my hairy mate Philip there last week, he went straight back out again for fear people might talk about us. I took him firmly by the wrist in a move that didn’t help things and coaxed him back in.
This was my third visit in seven days. I’d wanted to see if it actually did cut the mustard as a fast Italian lunch house. And it did. The mood at lunch time is all fast action: friendly young guys running a proper service, little bottles of sparkling San Pellegrino and big chunky glasses filled with ice and a lime slice.
In the evening, a family visit was hugely enjoyed thanks to some very cool tracks on the quality sound system (on this occasion the entire collection of Air), a menu that everyone was happy with (pizzas, bruschetta, risotto, pasta) and some intriguing specials of the day.
The last visit with the reluctant metrosexual proved as enjoyable. It’s not that the food is brilliant or that the service is WD40 smooth, or that the place is fancy, it’s just that everything seems right. There’s a balance here. The prices on the menu are friendly and the whole vibe is geared to mood-enhancement. This must be the influence of AM:PM, who were always good at injecting a little clubby atmosphere into their joint no matter what time of the day it was.
A bottle of prosecco kicked things off and soon beardy was beginning to relax even after an encounter with the large Queen Anne sofa which lines one wall. We had been guided to this particular table and as he sat down it became immediately evident that equal height is critical at the dinner table. Sit on this sofa and your partner sitting on the chair opposite will now appear to be on an umpire’s deck at Wimbledon. We moved to the banquette and settled down.
While the risotto cake featured on the menu, it was unavailable. Again. I’m not a big fan but now that it’s so elusive I am determined to go back until it appears. A simple mushroom risotto was offered instead. Its creaminess and texture were spot on but the stock was too reduced so that there was an unhappy Bovrilesque overtone to the flavour. Still, the mushrooms were very strong and plentiful.
Hairy’s bruschetta was text book. Excellent bread in a big slice, toasted and covered in little chunks of tomato, drops of pesto, and shreds of basil leaves made a fresh and robust little starter.
The prawns on a bed of orzo in a delicately spiced tomato sauce were firm, juicy, salty and surprisingly tasty. I never expect much from frozen tiger prawns (gamberri) but these aimed high. The orzo was the real show stealer, though. I’d had this the previous week and loved it. Orzo is that strangely wrong-footing kind of pasta that looks like rice. So when you put it in your mouth the texture comes as a surprise. That’s if you’re not used to it, of course, like my mate. But it was the cooked-just-right texture on the one hand and the dry sauce that packed the punch.
It’s a perfect lunchtime special but even in the evening it’s a good choice because of its lightness — especially if you’re going out after.
We had no desserts on this occasion but I had been told about the tiramisu and had had it a few days ago. I don’t know how many versions there are of tirmisu — it’s not like apple pie, which is always apple pie, what ever kind of pastry you use, what ever size it is, whether or not there’s cinnamon and all the rest of it. But tiramisu can range from a slice to a cupful.
In this case, it came in a glass covered in little shards of milk chocolate. Moist at the top and turning into proper soaking wet, sludgy sweetness at the bottom, it was a little triumph.
So for those in need of lunchtime Italian upliftings, we can now safely guide you to the Chubby Cherub. There may be very little by way of Italian spoken here but they’ve got the right idea. It’s quickfire yet laid back, the food is simple and good and the room will leave a smile on your face.
Gamberri x 2 £29
Bottle prosecco £20
Sml San Pellegrino £2.20