Twenty years ago the Crescent Town House slipped into Belfast’s consciousness without fanfare.
The stylish (at the time) hotel perched on the end of the most elegant street in Belfast, Lower Crescent, and had a certain cachet. But it went largely unnoticed. What did work in commercial terms was the bar downstairs.
The centre of gravity of Belfast’s night-time economy has shifted citywards in recent years, but throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s the Botanic Avenue quarter was the happening zone. There were bars and restaurants, the Arts Theatre and a bustling bohemian vibe. This has long since been replaced by a more day-time coffee house culture. And through it all has come the Metro Brasserie, serving decent food at reasonable prices.
The advisor and I went back last weekend. This was the first time we’d been in it in 15 years and it looked exactly the same. Either my memory has failed or the decor has indeed remained the same, but no matter, because as soon as we stepped into the little bar area where diners wait until their table is ready, you could tell the place was in relatively good hands. On this chilly Saturday night, the heat was on full and we were quickly shepherded to the table reserved only an hour or two earlier.
The dining room is oddly cosy, consisting of a sunken floor surrounded by a kind of gallery a couple of feet above. The low budget hotel art on the walls matches the purple upholstery and the tables are built for long term catering duty. Ours wobbled alarmingly but was put right by the advisor’s well-practised table-stability engineering skills and a folded napkin.
Menus are quickly provided but the server disappears too swiftly and before taking any drinks orders. Nobody likes waiting at a table with a dry throat and it should be easy enough to take drinks orders as you’re brought to the table. Eventually she comes back to take the food order. But we want drinks first. Bottle of wine, Diet Coke and bottle of beer.
The wine and beer come. The wine, a well-priced Villa Maria sauv blanc is chilled and delicious. The bottle of Peroni is not. I know many of you don’t attach much importance to the chill factor in beer, but it’s critical. It’s inexplicable how any bar or restaurant can still fail to serve a properly chilled bottle of beer in 2012.
But soon we get into the steady rhythm of an enjoyable dinner. Starters of fishcake, salt and chilli squid and duck salad provide good value at less than £6 each. The fishcakes have great meat to potato ratio, are big and appetising and their crispy shell is spot on. The squid is very spicy and tastes fresh and tender. The duck salad is good with fresh leaves, peppers and red onion and the dressing has presence, but the duck is a bit on the mean side. The shards of dry meat look like the end bits left over when you’re through with a crispy aromatic duck Chinese starter.
The chargrilled pork loins are very good, moist, full of flavour and enhanced with a little soy. My fish of the day is seabream with warm potato salad. The best way to have this fish is on the bone but it’s served as pan-fried fillets. These are fine with crispy skin, cooked nicely and well seasoned. The fillets are a generous size and provide plenty of sustenance. But the potato salad beneath is a vast affair. I liked the sound of a warm potato salad and imagined crushed little new skin-ons with some scallions, perhaps. But this is a magnificent affair with roast tomatoes, lots of butter and wilted leaves of lettuce or spinach (I wasn’t sure).
Other sides including shoestring fries and sautéed mushrooms are excellent. And the desserts of chocolate fondant and banana toffee steamed pudding are a highlight. Both taste light and fresh and the peanut butter ice cream is particularly good.
Fair play to the tired-looking Metro Brasserie — it really needs an overhaul — because the food and service are much better than the look of the place might hint.
A final thought: the last spray of cleaner on the table behind us was a reminder that some training is still needed among staff to let them know that when customers are eating or have just finished eating there is nothing worse than the nostril-burning stink of bleach. After-taste is an important part of a good dinner, no matter how simple. To have this little component of a dining experience destroyed like this is an avoidable crime.
Fishcakes x 2 £11.50
Duck salad £5.95
Pork loin x 2 £25.90
House salad £2.95
Shoestring fries x 2 £5.90
Banana pudding £4.50
Bottle Peroni £3.65
Bottle Villa Maria sauv blanc £19
Soda water £1.60
13 Lower Crescent, Belfast BT7 1NR
Tel: 028 9032 3349