Alden’s, east Belfast’s top diner, celebrated its 15th anniversary last month and then closed down. A former favourite of expense-account-wielding civil servants from the many nearby government departments, Alden’s was known as the Cayenne of the east.
And even if it never quite matched the former Michelin star holder, it was still an enjoyable restaurant with great front-of-house presence. The food wasn’t bad either, particularly when Cath Gradwell was in the kitchen.
But the closure of Alden’s is not all gloom, because emerging like a butterfly from its chrysalis is Neill’s Hill. The old Alden’s was stripped and gutted and in its place a carefully orchestrated ramshackle and pop-up feel has resulted in something that reflects modern trends. But because it’s the work of Jonathan Davis, who takes a meticulous approach to everything he does, the ramshackleness looks a teeny bit too tidy. It’s got more of a sense of east European workers’ collective canteen dressed up for a Saturday night than an unselfconscious coolness.
But that’s fine, because it still feels compelling. And the Wednesday night I went with the advisor and youngest Minne, the place was buzzing with 50 or 60 diners. Even though Alden’s was a smart neighbourhood restaurant, it would rarely have attracted this kind of number mid-week.
The menu itself is another on-trend feature, taking some design principles from that vague but seductive French New York school of bistronomy. An A3 sheet of glossy paper, it contains a great selection of small plates, sliders, salads, brunch and so on. There are very attractive offerings that appear under the section entitled From the Grill and Rotisserie. Even as a child, the word ‘grill’ was full of mouth-watering promise. Driving back to Armagh from Dublin in the Sixties and Seventies, we’d always stop at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill between Dundalk and Newry — it was one of life’s highlights and it’s where I had my first grilled trout with almonds. Heavenly.
Here, the grill and rotisserie offer up similarly irresistible promises of crispy, golden chops, filets and poultry: Neill’s rotisserie corn-fed chicken with rosemary, lemon and garlic; handmade ground beef burger with mature Cheddar, relish and fries; sirloin, rib-eye and fillet.
Below this section is a list of Large Plates, which includes cheeky beef and garlic mash (Jonathan says the fabulously tender, slow-cooked beef cheeks in a deep, dark wine jus are unparalleled), pork fillet with fino, rosemary and mushroom sauce with mash, and a couple of convincing vegetarian meals: blue cheese, broccoli and onion tart with Neill’s market salad and chips or a vegetable kebab with spiced cous cous and leek croquettes.
The evening kicks off with scallops and the advisor orders the liver pâté. Both are excellent starters, although the four small scallops at £7.50 seem steep. They come with a garlic gremolata served in a scallop shell. The flavours and textures are spot on, not overcooked, not too tidy and sparkling with fresh, ocean saltiness.
The geometrically perfect slice of chicken liver pate is light and mousse-like with a good tangy onion chutney and toasted fruit bread. Everyone’s happy.
The words grill and rotisserie have embedded the urge — I can’t go past the rib-eye and order it rare, with seabass for the advisor and kid’s burger for Charlotte. As we wait, the place fills up. Since ripping out all the soft furnishings, the clattery acoustics make the place livelier and people have to raise their voices. The atmosphere is neighbourhood party.
The mains are impressive too — well executed, carefully cooked and the child’s meal particularly so. A graceful little arrangement of burger, tiny bucket of chips and another pail of vegetables cut into sticks is appetising and quickly disappears.
It’s all new and Neill’s will be finding its feet, but in the meantime one of the easiest things to remedy (and critical to the laid-back, cool identity) is the drinks.
Davis was always brilliant at choosing excellent, unheard-of and reasonably priced wines.
He has a good selection of bottled beers too. But try getting a properly chilled one and you’re in for a struggle.
The only sour point was a gentle comment I made about the lemon posset, which had a cheesy after-taste. “It was cooked fresh this morning,” came the answer. I shrugged and didn’t bother asking how old the ingredients were.
Other than that small pop of surliness from the kitchen, Neill’s Hill is charming. It’s a bit like Il Pirata or ACE for beginners. If that’s how east Belfast is developing, then the rest of the city will soon be following.
Child’s main £4.50
Liver pâté £5.50
Endive salad £5.25
Child’s dessert £2.50
Steinlager bottle x 2 £6.90
Diet Coke £2.05
Prosecco glass £6
Sauvignon blanc glass £5.25
229 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 3JF
Tel: 028 9065 0079