Why the brilliant Barnardos-run Dr B’s Grill is just the tonic for those in search of someperfect lunchtime sustenance during Lent
For many of us Lent is a period of abstinence, reflection and soul-searching. Our thoughts turn to those less fortunate. We make an effort to transfer the money saved by giving up drinking and smoking for 40 days to Trocaire, Concern and the Salvation Army.
The annual period of austerity traditionally demands a ban on fancy restaurants, bars and entertainment, but I find that the best observation post for an overview of how well or badly Belfast people behave at this time of the year is a good table in Cayenne or James Street South with a good glass of Bordeaux to hand.
This year, however, I have found a more acceptable way of marking Lent that allows me on the one hand to offer up fully compliant Lenten sacrifice while on the other still managing a decent bit of restaurant scran. In fact, eating out could become the new giving-up-something-for-Lent if you adopt Dr B’s Grill in the heart of Belfast.
This award-winning yet modest lunch-house is no ordinary place. Operated by the charity Barnardos, Dr B’s is a restaurant producing good quality and occasionally exciting lunches prepared by young people with special needs, learning difficulties and other challenges.
Under the expert supervision of Peter Kennedy and Andrew Gibb, up to a dozen young people are working here every day in the kitchen as well as front of house. After a year or two, they will be ready to enter the commercial world of catering and many go on to work in city and town centre hotels in their own areas.
That’s all very noble you might say, but what’s the food like? I believe it’s as good as you will experience in the higher end of hotel restaurants.
The quality at Dr B’s has been acknowledged through recent gold and silver medal wins at national catering competition levels (Catex and Itex) in Dublin and London. Two dishes — a cod on risotto and a chicken with tomato stuffing — secured the triumphs for two young Dr B’s cooks, Samantha Rice, 18 and Kevin McParland, 17. Both dishes are currently on the menu.
Accompanied by two Barnardos minders, I watched as the gold-medal pan roasted cod fillet, pea and chive risotto with fennel puree and the silver-medal corn-fed chicken stuffed with sun-dried tomato farce served with fresh tagliatelle and balsamic glaze quickly disappeared from their plates. But not before I had sampled each one.
Carefully and sensitively put together, the dishes were perfectly plated and composed. There was a confidence in the stark plainness of the cod on its bed of risotto and peas. It was an expression of maturity — we told you what we were offering you and here it is in all its unadulterated or unnecessarily garnished glory. The generous piece of white fish, flaked and steamed, had been cooked with spot-on timing.
The chicken dish was cooked with similar skill, with great care having been taken from pan to plate. Appetising and beautifully presented in overlapping thick-cut slices, the flavours of the chicken with that balsamic glaze and the sun-dried tomato sang through very assertively.
There are five specials today in addition to the sandwiches, panini, fries and salads and I have the carrot and coriander soup (excellent) and lasagne served with garlic and pesto bread (and chips and coleslaw). There are rough days in one’s life when only a lasagne with chips and coleslaw will stabilise. Dr B’s lasagne is exemplary. It has plenty of herby flavours in the mince but also delightfully heavy blankets of béchamel and melted cheese.
The room itself is bright, modern and bustling with a constant hum. Young servers are attentive and quick on their feet. If you were looking for somewhere fast and quality-conscious for lunch, you could have a two-course meal with time for a coffee in here in well under 40 minutes.
This fast service is partially the reason for its success, I’m sure. Bridge Street and nearby High Street are a mecca for café lovers. There are quality places all around — Bright’s, Isobeal’s, the Northern Whig and many more — yet Dr B’s has cut a real dash here since the early ’90s.
You have to look for it, though. It’s right beside the main Barnardo’s charity shop but has
no distinctive branding except for the blackboard of the day’s specials stuck between its front door and the endless line of black cabs parked outside.
It’s worth finding, though. So if you’re in town during the week at lunchtime — it’s closed at the weekend — you’d be well advised to mark Lent by having lunch at Dr B’s. To the untrained eye you will be complying with the demands for a Spartan approach to refueling by having lunch in a charity scheme-run restaurant. To the initiated and those in the know, however, we’ll know you’re actually having a whale of a time. God bless you.
Soup & wheaten £2.95
Dessert x 2 £5.90
Coffee x 2 £2.40
Sparkling water x 2 £2.20