In the depths of misery, isn’t it great to see people like young John Ferguson (he looks barely old enough to be served at the bar) still have the gumption and confidence to plough thousands of pounds into a new restaurant in downtown Belfast?
The popular AM:PM in Botanic Avenue had been doing decent enough trade right up until late last year when, like an old horse too tired to pull the cart a foot further, it finally lay down and passed away.
Then came Ferguson and his idea that the thing could be revived, given a lick of paint, a new kitchen, some funky furniture and good front-of-house staff. But first he needed a lawyer.
He says he was waiting one day to go into a meeting with his lawyer, who phoned ahead to say he was stuck in the Law Society but wouldn’t be too long.
“Lost Society?” he wondered, before discovering what he had really said. But then he thought, actually, what a great name for a restaurant.
The Lost Society isn’t really lost at all, as it turns out. It’s a modernised but essentially conventional bistro downstairs, restaurant on the first floor and private rooms on the second, and one that was very busy the Saturday night the adviser and I went.
It’s kind of like Shu in spirit with lots of big parties, a regular flow of pints being served to the tables by top-flight servers, and a fair sprinkling of out-of-towners up to the big smoke for the night. We notice rib-eyes and onion rings leaving the kitchen every 30 seconds and as we look at the menu, we wonder if it’s going to be just a big steak and chips place.
But Mr Ferguson sees we have a ten-year-old and is over like a shot apologising because he hasn’t had time to put the kids’ menu together yet, “but sure ask for anything and we’ll do our best”.
The downstairs bistro and bar is a cosy and welcoming place and there are plenty of diners getting a quick bite before heading out. Upstairs, the grander and more leisurely-paced restaurant is busy too. It may be that there are still a few late office parties making up for pre-Christmas cancellations, or it may be that people from outside the city hunt in large packs. Either way, at least three tables are catering for ten or more. But there are plenty of twos and fours as well and we are given a decent spot from which to survey arrivals and the rest of the restaurant.
On the menu are surprising and unexpected starters: confit of pork belly; grilled black pudding and poached apple on a skewer with steamed pak choi and oyster sauce; mushroom risotto; lamberry cheese salad (warm Glens of Antrim lamb in wild berry dressing with rocket and crispy fried ardrahan cheese); and prawn cocktail (north coast prawns in flamed brandy marie rose sauce, boiled egg and rocket).
The skewer is sensational. The pork belly flakes away under the fork, the apple is still firm and the black pudding a gorgeous, dry crumbling ring of dark porky flavours. And yet the pak choi and oyster sauce beneath steal the show with their textures and sweet-and-sour excitement.
The adviser’s beechwood smoked salmon is good but shining through is the home-made pickled beetroot, potato bread chips and the wasabi mayonnaise. She declares it top class with emphasis on the wasabi mayo, which she says is memorable.
The mains are just as appetising, with double duck (shredded confit of duck, caramelised red onions, fried baby potatoes, young spinach and slow-boiled duck egg) and the Belfast Bacon Chop (maple glazed dry cured bacon chop, buttered cabbage, pancetta, champ cake and angel hair leeks) among them.
I have the ‘Hot & Tangy Irish Salmon Hot Pot’, marinated in palm sugar, chilli and ginger on lime and miso cous cous. This is less impressive. The hot pot puts notions of a kind of stew in my head, all wet and saucy, but instead there is a pyramid of thumb-sized salmon strips each coated with a tasty enough sauce. Under this is a mound of slightly overcooked cous cous. It’s not bad, but it is dry and boring.
The adviser’s pan-roast breast of Armagh chicken with fondant of sweet potato, slow roast red wine shallots, lemon, pea and balsamic dressing, is, on the other hand, very good. The chicken is packed with moist, lemony flavour, its skin is crispy and the accompanying components well thought out and executed. The young ’un gets a version of this with chips that are unexceptional.
The adviser suggests Ferguson will find the steaks are his biggest seller with the crowd he’s attracting. He might be tempted to cut back on the more exciting stuff as a result. Let’s hope not, because Lost Society has managed to position itself very quickly as a younger person’s Shu, which relies on great staff, ambience and quality food. If Lost Society adopts the same approach it’ll be here for the long-term.
Smoked salmon £6
Pork belly £6
Salmon hotpot £11
Child’s roast chicken £5.95
Side salad £2.95
Broken biscuit ice-cream £4
Irish cheeses £8
Stump Jump white wine £18
Lrg sparkling water £3.95
Diet Coke £1.70