Visiting Cutter’s Wharf after an 18-month absence is like coming out of a lengthy stretch in jail to find your wife looks fabulous and has found a new man, the children are all grown up, well-mannered, pleasant and ambitious and the dog’s run away. It’s all unrecognisable.
The last meal I’d endured there was a sad affair: the service wasn’t the best, the place was dark at lunchtime and the food was just barely edible.
But then one Sunday morning recently, the adviser awoke and announced her intention to have lunch upstairs in Cutter’s Wharf and we were welcome to join her. She’d heard from parents at the PTA meeting a couple of nights before that Cutter’s had undergone a very successful makeover and that the food had improved.
A table was booked, the very nice woman at the end of the phone explaining that she mightn’t be able to guarantee a table by the window (we’d given her half an hour’s notice) “but sure come down and I’ll keep a good one for you”.
When we screeched into the car-park minutes later, the sun was out and the teenagers suggested we should sit outside. I told them to sit at a bench table, went inside and upstairs and started counting (they were inside within a minute, shivering and blue).
The restaurant room upstairs at Cutter’s Wharf is impressive. Bright, modern touches of north European design, the split-level floor allows even those farthest from the windows overlooking the Lagan (and ugly Annadale beyond) a view of the rowers below.
The added attraction of a drop-down screen with projector between the restaurant and bar on which the Ireland-France rugby match was being broadcast further enhanced the whole joyous mood.
The menu required no thought. It’s big, it’s brash, there are no mysteries nor any lurking dangers. There are pizzas, pasta and poultry. There are burgers with countless accoutrements. In the seafood section there are warm fish finger sandwiches, fish pie, beer-battered Portavogie scampi, battered haddock with mushy peas, handcut chips and tartare sauce and baked fillet of Glenarm salmon. There are sirloins, rib-eyes, racks of ribs and even surf ’n’ turf.
This is a PTF menu (pints then food) which is as appealing to children drinking Fanta as it is to merry adults.
Servers are quick on their feet. Young, friendly and very capable they are done up in white shirts, gold ties and black waistcoats over long white aprons.
A rare enough appearance of popcorn features among the starters with the promise “we’ll bring it right away”. Sure enough, a large bowl of popped corn in a swathe of Cajun spices soon appeared. It’s a nice touch as it keeps people from playing with the cutlery while waiting for the food.
A French onion soup with two large slices of toasted bread and melted cheese would easily pass for a main course on any other day. But as this was Sunday, it joined the other appetisers including a honey chilli chicken with Asian salad and pineapple salsa, salt and pepper squid with sweet chilli sauce and ciabatta with garlic rub. We all dipped in and out of each others’ dishes. They fell neatly into the quality pub food category rather than fine dining, brasserie or bistro.
A lemon sole with lemon butter and capers had been designated special of the day and was reinforced by a good dollop of buttery mash.
Pizzas were debated. One thought the base is too soft and bread-like, the other disagreed and fought the pizza’s corner, pointing to the skinniness of it and the decent tomato sauce and ham.
The advisor went all out with the full rack of BBQ glazed baby back ribs, shoestring fries and coleslaw. There was lots of it but she said they were decently well prepared, falling off the bone as expected and the sauce wasn’t too glutinous.
The food, you may have sensed, was almost incidental. I was transfixed by the icy, frosty pints of lager being delivered around the restaurant as Ireland took their early and unexpected lead on France. Meanwhile, the charm and hospitality of the Cutter’s Wharf staff was such that the food played a distant second fiddle.
If everything in Cutter’s is about presentation now, we can’t overlook that the kitchen is making far better food than it used to. While it’s not perfect, it still makes for a very pleasant and inexpensive outing.
Chilli chicken £5.95
Ciabatta £ 2.95
Onion soup £3.95
Lemon sole £10.95
Pizzas x 2 £15
Cranachan mess £3.95
Diet Cokes x 5 £9.50
Glass pinot grigio £4.75
Sparkling water x 2 £6.35
Lockview Road, Belfast BT9 5FJ.
Tel: 028 9080 5100.