Restaurateur Sam Spain and chef Tony O’Neill’s joint ability to sprinkle magic over restaurants like Il Pirata, Barking Dog and Coppi is a reminder of how important branding is to the sector.
Spain and O’Neill have the Midas touch when it comes to positioning mid-range restaurants offering value for money, trend-setting environment and good service.
But oddly, their Strandtown operation, first created in east Belfast by Spain nine years ago, the former and much-missed Gourmet Burger Bank (GBB), lost its way in recent years.
GBB was a great invention, offering just what it says on the tin. There were burgers made of beef, pork, venison, lamb, duck and chicken. There were even burgers made of vegetables and pulses. Excellent chunky chips and French fries, ice-cold beers and entertaining pop art on the walls completed the cheeriness. It was a strong brand constructed from Spain’s magpie collection of trends he picked up in New York and London and then recreated in Belfast. Everyone loved it.
But after a while he started feeling guilty about the place. He said that GBB had given him the financial foundation on which Il Pirata and Barking Dog were built but that really, after all these years of flipping patties, he ought to “do something with the place, put something back into it”.
His reason for this was, well, you’re better changing a success story before it’s forced to change. I sort of understood, but what then followed was a degree of uncertainty, a loss in confidence and a confused identity. The brand values of GBB slipped from their hands like a freshly-caught eel.
GBB was rebranded into ACE. But the food was like Il Pirata’s. In fact it was very like it. In addition to the Italianate flavours, there was the inclusion of the American food fad for quinoa salads. There were also hot dogs, made disappointingly with healthy organic sausages rather than lush but heart-stoppingly microprocessed Frankfurters.
Feedback about how much better it was when there were burgers was taken on board and burgers were back on the menu. Despite the loss of direction, ACE was busy and successful, yet Spain and O’Neill still weren’t happy with it. This crisis of confidence may be down to their obsession with branding. After all, Coppi and Il Pirata are distinct, branding successes and Barking Dog has a strong identity too. So now the ACE name has been ditched for something else — Happy Angel.
Happy Angel looks very like ACE. Apart from the new name and a large sheet of graffiti-covered corrugated iron behind the bar, which I don’t remember seeing in there last month, it’s the same restaurant.
The nailed-together doors and panels to create walls and breaks are still there (and very effective at keeping out the drafts) as is the crappy schoolhouse furniture. The combined look is clean shanty-town.
The menu is, however, sourced 8,000 miles east and provides the heart of the difference. It’s Asian and brief, it’s accessible and close enough to the conventional comforts of Chinese and Thai. But it shows a good dollop of trend-compliance offering up Tom Yum hot and sour prawn broth, Pad Thai stir-fried noodles with tamarind and peanuts and red curry of ground pork all for only a fiver each at lunchtime.
Spain and O’Neill could stand accused of taking an easy option here — stir fries, Thai curries, laksa noodle soups and so on are easy to do well — but the fact is that some of Happy Angel’s dishes are memorable. The crispy beef shortrib with sesame oil and sweet chilli glaze is so different to anything else on offer in town, it’s worth the visit alone. O’Neill explains how he achieves the super-tenderness and crispy exterior through braising the rib meat then dipping in a little flour and chilli and briefly roasting. Accompanied by the spiced noodles and some wok-fried greens, it would be hard to match this anywhere. Pork belly cubes in Vietnamese chilli caramel sauce was easily worth the £8.50, packed as it was with the right strengths of sweet, sour, savoury and salty flavours.
But the massaman curry disappointed. Its sourness was overwhelming, the bitter tamarind locked in mortal combat with sweet pineapple.
The service is up to the usual high Spain/O’Neill standards and it’s a pleasure to go into this place as it is any of the other three. I hope Happy Angel settles into the kind of brand they want or have in mind because this neighbourhood restaurant will draw them in from much further afield than Strandtown.
Chilli beef £8.50
Caramel pork £8.50
Chicken cashew £7.50
Massaman curry £9.50
Sweet & sour chicken £12.50
Choc chilli cake £5
Cocktails x 2 £12
Diet Coke £1.75
Bottle Tsintao x 3 £10.50
Glass Sauvignon blanc £4
20 Belmont Road, Belfast BT4 2AN
Tel: 028 9047 3333