If Belfast and Northern Ireland’s restaurant sector is ten years behind London, as Matthew Fort said recently, in a kind way, then that may be no bad thing.
Food may be like music and art to chefs and foodies, something to be explored and analysed, something always evolving and changing and something mysterious and complicated, but for the rest of us, food is something made in pots and pans and has to play its role as a social focal point.
A restaurant has to be reliable and its food and service above reproach. Anything inferior wrecks the mood and the occasion and the whole point of getting around the table in the first place is destroyed. (Either that or it can be entertaining, but that’s another story.)
And quality has little to do with expensiveness. Belfast and Northern Ireland people prefer quality ingredients well cooked than anything up itself. Which is why good restaurants, whether they are serving chicken burgers or chateaubriand, succeed.
So when St Anne’s Square made way for its seventh restaurant (there’s Potted Hen, Salt Bistro, Canteen at The MAC, House of Zen, SQ at Ramada Encore and 4th Wall), anticipation was high. Sam Spain and chef Tony O’Neill have a knack for quality food, served by people who care, in an atmosphere of excitement and comfort. Their new operation is an Italian called Coppi, a concrete and industrial tiled affair that, despite its racing cyclist references, has more the feel of an Imperial Stormtroopers' refectory from the not-too-distant future.
It’s very different to Il Pirata, ACE and Barking Dog — Spain’s other success stories — yet it’s unmistakeably part of that family where strength of identity and quality food and service combine to offer the diner something attractive, exciting and memorable. The furniture is matching, the tan leatherette booths are low and comfortable, the privacy and intimacy is surprising as the room appears large and functional. And those bare concrete pillars add the right tone of brutalist modernism to provide the urban flavour.
And flavours are what this place is about, if one late lunch is to go by. Small cichetti dishes in the style of Venetian bars and restaurants include a surprisingly rich array of tastes. There are little offerings of soft briny squid, feta cheese cubes deep fried in breadcrumbs and bresaola rolled around figs and leaves that prepare you for the eye-popping chopped, marinated shallots in harissa and mint and almonds shaken in tons of hot, dusty paprika.
There are also proper tapas plates, including cubes of manchego and quince jelly, anchovies in chilli, mint and dill, spiced pork and fennel sausage, picked wild mushroom crostini and marinated mixed olives. These are presented in the very stylish menu as three for £6, four for £8 or six for £12 — or, in ordinary money, two quid each.
Tony O’Neill says the small plates are what he really wants to make work. He believes there is a market in Belfast for a quick drink and a few bites, particularly being next door to the MAC where arts lovers, cool dudes and pretenders can take a break from looking brilliant and soaking up the culture and drop by for a breather.
These are seriously good and offer flavours not normally encountered in Belfast bistros and brasseries. The almonds in paprika are powerful and evocative, invoking thoughts of hot sunshine and the Middle East. The shallots are outrageously good, at first confusing the senses with the ultra tanginess of the marinated shallots creating a fight in your mouth, then immediately followed by the spiced heat of the harissa and, then again, with a further sweet hit of the mint. It’s an absolute revelation and either the accidental product of a twisted genius or the successful outcome of months of experimentation.
There are items on the menu called ‘plates’, which can be marginally less expensive than main courses. Among these are soup, carpaccio of beef, lamb pizertta (spiced ground lamb, pomegranate, pine nuts, tomato and red onion), smoked chicken pizetta with gorgonzola and walnut and many more intriguing offers. (There are also excellent chips, garlic potatoes, parmesan and rosemary fries, salads, roast vegetables and the like to keep the nervous steady.)
Main courses feature pasta that is made in house every day. I had the artichoke pasta (gigli) with black olives and sundried tomato tapenade, which was full of rich flavours. I honestly can’t tell the difference between freshly-made pasta and the dried, packet kind.
The advisor had the shellfish version, which was a beautiful dish including plenty of clams, mussels and prawns in saffron cream and tagliatelli. The younger ones had garlic chicken with sweet paprika, chorizo, sauté potatoes, peperonata and basil and seafood risotto. Approving nods and silence made the point clearly.
Coppi is blessed with the vision of Sam Spain and the sheer brilliance of Tony O’Neill. The adherence to quality ingredients — meat from Peter Hannan’s, which must surely be the best in Ireland — is rewarded with excellent cooking and the result is an experience which demands applause.
If this is ten years behind London, then I’m glad we’re in Belfast.
Cichetti x 5 £10
Artichoke pasta £8.50
Shellfish pasta £11.50
Garlic chicken £13.50
Prawn risotto £10.50
Parmesan fries £3
Estrella beer £3.50
Large sparkling water £3.50
Coke x 5 £7.50
2 St Anne’s Square, Belfast BT1 2LD
Tel: 07563 302367