Some restaurants are lucky. These lucky ones seem to be busy most of the time even if the food is mediocre, the décor tired and the location slightly off the main strip.
In these circumstances even seasoned commercial property owners acknowledge that there is a magical and impossible-to-define sweet spot that defies the usual rules of city or town centre or suburban positioning. One perfect example is Bistro Este, which is on a particularly charmless section of the Newtownards Road, yet, two years on, the little neighbourhood restaurant is doing very well, thank you (see next week’s review). Owners of such restaurants happily scratch their heads wondering why they’ve been so blessed.
But even the most solid and long-lasting restaurant operation is not immune to subtle shifts in trends. Take CoCo in Belfast’s Linenhall Street. CoCo replaced the former Roscoff, which replaced the former Christies. I can’t remember what was there before Christies — that’s going back more than 15 years. But it proves my point about restaurants and lucky sites.
CoCo has remained more or less the same since it opened. The surreal furniture in the holding area has largely disappeared but the very attractive and a bit disturbing pictures on the walls gave CoCo an eccentric, trendy feel five years ago. But there’s the problem — it hasn’t moved on.
This is surprising, as owner Jason More is probably more trend-conscious, fashion-sensitive and streetwise than any chef patron in the city. His nearby competitors, meanwhile, have been applying the David Bowie method of perpetual change to guarantee their positions at the front line. Michael Deane and his seafood bar, Niall McKenna and James Street South Bar & Grill have been investing, adjusting and changing their operations to keep them fresh and exciting.
Ah but, you say, places like Mourne Seafood Bar must never change lest they risk losing the very schtick that makes them tick. That’s true, but only because Mourne Seafood Bar has become an institution like the Crown Bar (meanwhile, Mourne owners Bob McCutcheon and Andy Rea are always developing other ideas like cookery schools, the Oyster bar, Home Pop-Up and a new place they’re opening in Dublin soon).
In fairness, Jason More has had his hands full with the recent opening of the Donaghadee Governor Rocks restaurant.
It’s not that CoCo is bad or expensive — the food is decent, occasionally very good and the prices are reasonable — it’s just that it looks and feels dated, a bit naff. Nonetheless, two of us are here for the food and there’s nothing shabby about the lunch menu this particular Tuesday. There are appetisers of marinated mozzarella with crispy cured ham and tomato oil, CoCo prawn cocktail with new potatoes, black olive, baby gem, soft-boiled egg and ‘cocktail’ sauce, rare beef salad with walnut and blue cheese dressing, port reduction, wild rocket and parmesan and few other classics.
My Strangford Lough mussels in white wine, cream, shallot, garlic and parsley are as expected. Good quality, fat mussels, plenty of them, with a sauce that is unusually unsalty. They must have really rinsed those shells thoroughly. (My mother says not to clean your shellfish properly, leaving a tell-tale grit which can reveal itself painfully in your bite, is a crime of such proportion in France that your guests will probably never talk to you again, take ads in the local papers to denounce you and throw you into social isolation for the rest of your life).
My mate Peter is on the linguine with honey-roast ham, blue cheese, white wine cream, pine nuts and chives. Peter reckons it’s a warm and attractive dish with depth as well as back-of-the-throat sparkle from the blue cheese.
The mains are ok, although my pork belly suffers from super-heating. I get the “please don’t touch the plates, sir, they’re incredibly hot” but when the food itself has been further cooked as a result of contact with white-hot crockery, then things go awry. In this case the pork belly was wonderfully crispy, the meat at that happy cross-over point between fat and muscle but everything else was overdone. The two-way sweet potato was slightly acrid, the purple kale (two tiny leaves) had been crisped and rendered tasteless and the five-spice jus was just a little too thick and sweet.
Peter’s cod was a more balanced affair. The curry battered fish was crispy, firm and moist in all the right places; the chilli minted mushy peas and spinach added excitement and entertainment and the chunky chips tasted fresh and earthy.
We agreed that the reason the place was just about empty this lunchtime was not only because of the austere times but because nearby competition from Home, McKenna’s Bar & Grill and Deane’s little empire of choices is livelier.
Pork belly £9.50
Cauliflower cheese £3.50
Truffle cake £5.50
Sparkling water x 2 £7.50
Pinot grigio, glass £4.50
7-11 Linenhall Street, Belfast BT2 8AA.
Tel: 028 9031 1150.