There is a part of Belfast which will always be Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It’s called the Northern Whig.
A team of competition smokers seems to be in permanent residence outside on the footpath day and night (they must do it in shifts), the age range seems predominantly under 30, suntanned and generally gorgeous, and the vast interior, dominated by the three east European soldier-hero statues, provides a devil-may-care, live-for-today, what-the-hell kind of mood.
But this is only half the story. The flip side of the Northern Whig is the quality of chef Rick Orr’s food and service, also available day and night.
On a recent visit, undertaken as part of a competition adjudication, I was not prepared for the high levels of hospitality which were in immediate evidence.
It was a busy enough Tuesday lunchtime and menus and drink orders were swiftly delivered. The first thing that strikes you about the day’s two-course specials is that both starter and main are pork dishes. For some this could be a deterrent. If a diner is coming in for two dishes they may be after a bit of variety. I would be among them. Yet it worked very well thanks to the big cultural difference between the two.
The starter of pork parcels, a kind of homage to Chinese cooking, was generous and beautifully presented. Two spring roll-like offerings in sesame seeds accompanied by a ramekin of noodles, look appetising and inviting.
The content of the rolls was good — marinated Chinese pork flavours and textures worked well with the crispy casing and seeds. There was plenty of volume but the noodles were on the sweet side and slightly rubbery (a lighter consistency might be achieved through use of smaller calibre noodles).
The main course of pork shoulder, colcannon and roast shallots arrived soon after. The mound which supports three large roundels of the crispy, golden pork shoulder was surrounded by tiny shards of roasted apple and bacon and a decent pool of gravy. The appeal of the dish on a rainy cold day was all the more potent with powerful, meaty flavours and a great variety of textures. The pork was tender and moist with plenty of crispiness providing the perfect balance with the soft inviting colcannon.
The colcannon was top class with crushed new potatoes with delicate skins interwoven with bright green shreds of crunchy cabbage leaves. There were beautiful, country flavours in this which were further heightened and enhanced by the apple and bacon.
My nameless assistant riding Rocinante today ordered the burger, about which much had been whispered. While, on the one hand, Belfast is being showered with new food served on mismatched furniture and hospital bed pans, our love of hamburgers remains undiminished and forever ardent. Among Belfast’s burger cosgnoscenti, Northern Whig’s had a reputation for being very different indeed. Some had said it was too posh — a burger is the food of the masses, you can’t pimp a burger too much or else it crosses the line into, Heaven forbid, fine dining.
So it was with some anticipation that we both studied the arrival intensely. Presented on a black rough slate with a basket of crispy root vegetable game chips the two small, tall stacks looked distinctly like burgers — artistic interpretations of burgers, but still burgers.
Where you’d expect a bap base and top, there were potato cakes cut in rounds. Stacked up high, each level included black pudding, the little burger patty, a shaped tomato and on the side was the ramekin of tomato chutney. These are not burgers you can lift and eat with your hands so perhaps technically they have crossed the line into fine dining but when flavours and ingredients are this good, who cares about the proletariat? The meat, the soft, breathy tastes and textures of potato cake and black pudding work beautifully with the tomato chutney, which is a well-judged blend of tanginess, pickles and tomato.
The only downside are the game chips which are slightly greasy. Perhaps they should be allowed to dry longer, like crisps. But this is a minor criticism.
As a whole the Northern Whig special burger (check it’s on the menu before ordering) is a serious contender for most intriguing and well judged experimental burger in Belfast.
Whig Special 2-courses £10
Complete Irish Burger £8.50
Half pint Harp £1.90
2 Bridge St, Belfast BT1 1LU.
Tel: 028 9050 9888