I’m smitten by the trail-blazing Argentinian restaurant that brings an authentic taste of South American flair to Northern Ireland
When Forrest Gump sat on his bench explaining that life was like a box of chocolates, he could easily have applied his philosophy to eating out in Belfast. Because even for those of us vaguely aware of which restaurants are good, bad and ugly, there occasionally pops up one which is so unexpectedly marvellous it takes us utterly by surprise. La Boca is one of them.
Landlocked in a traffic-free city centre pedestrian precinct, La Boca, an Argentine-style cantina with a menu as authentic (according to my Latin American friends) as anything you will find in Buenos Aires, has made a lasting impression in recent years. If you don’t know what kind of food Argentines like, just think of Spanish food but|better.
With classy, simple and unfussy décor, La Boca is a big, airy, friendly place that immediately communicates a sense of dignified Latin informality as soon as you step inside. My playmate today is famed architect Colin Conn who designed the original restaurant here in 1995. It’s still largely the same as it was then, he says.
Kind of right-on and a bit Guardian-reader like (when I ordered a drink and the menu while waiting, I was given a copy of the newspaper), La Boca doubles up as a serious visual art space. There are ever–changing photo exhibitions on the huge high walls. At the moment, and until June 30, it’s the excellent ‘I scored a goal in the World Cup’ — the South Americans’ series of portraits by Michael Donald.
While some of you might be forgiven for getting a whiff of the community arts, nut-cutlet and yoghurt brigade about the place just from reading this, be reassured that this is first and foremost a cool and quality restaurant. For one thing, there is a distinct sense of professional order imposed by an ever-present and polished floor staff. They may look laid back but you soon realise you’re in good hands. Umberto, the impossibly handsome and self-effacing lead man on the floor, knows how this is supposed to work and imbues the place with snappy efficiency and expertise.
Just as there are guest beers (among them is an intriguing little selection from Scottishmicrobrewery ‘Brew Dogs’ — a lager called Trashy Blond that is dry, malty and as good as our own Kilkeel-brewed Belfast Blond) — and very good and reasonably priced wines from Chile, Argentina and the rest of the world, the extensive menu contains a vast choice of South American staples.
Lots of beef, fish and chicken, peppers, salads and tomatoes feature here. Argentina is as renowned for its steak as Italy is for its pizza. The steak here is Angus imported from the pampas grassland ranches of Argentina. Is it worth bringing it all this way, I wonder? After all, this is Ireland you’re talking about, where the beef is the best in Europe.
Is there a difference, I ask Umberto? He explains that the real difference in flavour lies in the preparation. The char-grilled approach creates a smokier flavour than the pan but he says the livestock is fed on different grasses and this has an effect on the fat content and texture too.
Frankly, neither Conn nor I could distinguish between Irish and Argentine in the rib eyes we ordered last week. The quality of the meat was unquestionable and the way it
was prepared was faultless — beautifully rare with decent scalding on the exterior. The meat itself, however, might as well have been from a quality local heifer. And that’s a compliment. Umberto shrugs. If you’re going to have an Argentine restaurant, he says, then you need to be authentic and that means produce sourced from the place itself. And anyway, he says, a new Argentine grill stove is being delivered to la Boca later this summer — then you’ll see how different the meat tastes.
The two little pots of coarse salsa — one criolla, a spicy Spanish-style peppery stew; the other chimichurri, a milder Argentine ratatouille, — were there to enhance the steaks. Excellent chips, hand-cut and crispy, and a good green salad with lots of rocket and grated manchego cheese completed the main courses happily.
While the steak dishes might have been hard enough to identify as typically Argentine, the starters on the other hand were definitely meridional.
Portobello mushrooms with bacon and melted cheese were lushious, rich, salty and full of flavours. The architect’s stuffed pepper, a simple enough affair with rice and salad, was equally good.
Desserts of bread and butter pudding and pancakes were a delight. These great big dollops of moist sweet dough and the additional fruit and cream made a homely, rustic end to the meal. By the way, the coffee in here is not to be missed. Deep, rich and everything but bitter, the coffee in la Boca is exemplary and provides a moment of perfection with the accompanying desserts.
Pedro McDonnell, the half Argentine half Irish owner, has aimed to provide a real taste of South America. A Nando’s for grown-ups, La Boca attracts thinkers and office workers but to mistake the restaurant as little more than a nod towards ethnicity would be a sin. It’s a seriously good restaurant, one of the best in Belfast, and if you’ve ever wondered about doing something different for once, this is the place you’ll find becomes a habit.
Stuffed peppers £7.95
Ribeye x 2 £31.90
Bread and oils £3.95
Desserts x 2 £9
Trashy Blond lager £2.95
Quilmes lager £2.95
House red wine £12.95
Coffee x 2 £3.40