Salt Bistro, House of Zen, Fourth Wall, Potted Hen — it all sounds like a merry little rhyme, and how appropriate as these are the four restaurants that now cluster around the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast’s St Anne’s Square.
The MAC, which now dominates the Cathedral Quarter of the old city centre, is the final piece in the economic and social regeneration plans for the central north Belfast area. It flung open its doors to mighty fanfare and tributes only a fortnight ago and, within minutes, the most achingly trendy people flocked to its exhibitions and performance spaces.
But a week or two earlier, Salt Bistro, two doors up from the MAC, opened its elegant little doors altogether more quietly and barely noticeably. With views onto St Anne’s Square as well as the cobbled Exchange Street on the other side, Salt Bistro’s walls are almost all glass.
Salt is a clean little city centre restaurant with no pretensions, yet it has started to make its presence felt thanks to a decent menu and some quality cooking. I’ve been three or four times for dinner and lunch and it has improved each time. The first night with the advisor and family, the bill was big and the value for money poor — to this palate a steak was overdone, a lemon sole was just about ok and the chicken was passable.
But this was on the second night of opening (and it was Good Friday). I could argue that if you can’t get it right in the first week, then you shouldn’t charge full whack, but then I didn’t complain at the time. The lunches I had alone and then with a very fussy friend a week later were much better and the quality standards were raised. A refreshingly well-dressed salad of green leaves with Clonakilty black pudding and poached egg was a great appetiser. The mess of leaves and crumbly pudding worked well with the warm, runny egg yolk. Had it been served with a bit of quality bread, this would have been perfect.
But I liked it so much I came back a couple of days later and ordered it as a main course, only to be disappointed that it wasn’t that much bigger than the starter, or if it was, the ratio of black pudding to leaves seemed diminished.
The pan-fried breast of chicken was memorable, with the crispiest, saltiest skin, fizzing with flavours and providing excellent brittle textures next to the moist soft meat. Served with chips, the dish looked a bit forlorn and dry and needed something to moisten it — a side salad almost did the trick. Even just a little pot of aioli or something would liven up this otherwise top-class lunch dish.
A run through the menu quickly reveals a reliance on old favourites. There’s nothing wrong with that; food shouldn’t always be the subject of ever-changing new ideas.
There are mussels from Strangford and Dundrum crab cakes. A glazed chilli quail is a clear step away from convention and well worth the trip to Salt alone. Glenarm salmon features too. In fact, it features so widely in restaurants here, that I feel I’ve never escaped it. But the advisor asked me when was the last time I’d ordered it. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t remember.
Also, a small detour into the wild side, are the hot and spicy chicken wings with blue cheese dip and celery sticks, and confit of duck with rosemary and ginger-scented puy lentils.
All this hints at a great back catalogue of grandeur. And indeed there is pedigree in the kitchen. Recently arrived from Limerick, where Donal and Teresa Cooper ran a very respected fine diner, the standards are already high and on a par with the much-praised 27 Talbot Street, which sadly announced last week that it was going to close.
There are nice continental touches in the service, which is efficient and smoothly operated by staff who know what they’re at. Bottled Italian lager comes deeply chilled, the wine list is clever, well thought-out and reasonable and the overall mood is, despite the cutesy framed little Irish landscapes, very urban European. It’s a bit like being in a bistro abroad whose owner went to Ireland for a holiday and came back with armfuls of Oirish stuff to put on the walls. Yet its brightness, clarity of spaces and high ceilings combine to produce a whiff of distinct and easy sophistication.
Breads & tapenade £4.50
Soup x 2 £9
Black pudding salad £8.95
Glass house wine x 2 £7.90
Coffees x 2 £3.75
St Anne’s Square, Belfast BT1 2LR
Tel: 028 9023 8012