It’s been three years since the last review of Shu in these pages, but in that time your dedicated taster has been back for two dozen meals at night, at lunchtime, in the private room, with other people’s money, my own money, for birthdays and for sensitive-ish business meetings.
Shu has proven to be all things to all comers, the common denominator being absolute continuity of quality at all times.
The front of house, under the magnificent direction of Julian, is sassy and relaxed and creates a mood to match the food. It’s understated yet showbizzy, it’s got tables where people can be seen and discreet corners for the shy. In fact, it’s such a pleasant and exciting place to be, you wonder if the food really matters.
The first time I reviewed it, it felt like hen party central. There is a clubby bar restaurant downstairs, which makes it the ideal destination for those who want a night out without having to wait for taxis — it’s a modern version of the dinner-dance set up your parents might have enjoyed.
But the food does matter. Chef Brian McCann is in command and he’s one of the best. At the pointy end of this business, the food is the determining factor that makes a restaurant’s reputation, not the choice of dance tracks, and McCann is consistent.
The secret to Shu’s success (apart from the draw of the downstairs club, the place seems never to be quiet) is the balance it has struck among the three key components — the food, the service and environment.
There are many restaurants with talented chefs but some of these are let down by poor communications with the front-of-house staff or just a naff, uncomfortable dining room. Shu’s food is always good and the service is exemplary; the room is unpretentious and unremarkable — but it’s well lit and comfortable.
The impression it creates is that Shu is at the centre of anything that is important at any given time. Celebrities continue to grace it to give it its sheen (Sarah Jessica Parker and Natalie Portman more recently) and the long-lasting echoes of high-society visits mean the restaurant is imbued with a special magic. This has long-lasting appeal, but even this needs to be backed up with consistency. We’re not all impressed by who goes where.
The latest visit with a group of nine loud and demanding friends was another triumph. Celebrity optician Geoff McConville was there for a start, so that confirmed Shu’s top-eatery-for-top-people status. We were given a table from which we could watch Commander-in-chef McCann in action and the smiling servers were far more slick, knowledgeable and dignified than any of us could ever hope to be.
When the menus arrived, the promise of pickled calf’s tongue, marinated Drumbeg tomatoes with artichoke, risotto of summer vegetables and other delights raised anticipation even further.
While the server gave us welcome advice on the wine (the Picpoul has been trending heavily this summer in Northern Ireland restaurants and Shu is no exception), she was also on the ball when asked about the food. To have a brief discussion about food before ordering is one of the most pleasant 30 seconds anyone can spend, so, if only for that, you should hurry down.
As it happens, no wine could be recommended with anything pickled so I had my calf’s tongue with a cold beer. The tongue — an emince, in slices — was heavenly. The velvety smooth and marinated meat melting in the mouth and heightened with the radish, caper and raisin puree. My mother used to make ox tongue for us as children and I remembered seeing the obscene big thing curled up in the pot and then daring to taste a slice of it, which she served up warm with mustard and mash. This was very similar, if much posher, but it resurrected those memories in an instant.
Others around the table claimed the risotto of summer vegetables with crème fraîche, basil and extra virgin oil was exceptional, while the foie gras with spiced pear and raisin chutney and toasted walnut and raisin bread was unforgettable.
The 24-hour cooked shoulder and breast of lamb, aubergine caviar, asparagus and bulgar wheat was very high class. A perfectly formed cylinder of mixed lamb meats, cooked in a timbale, the dish was one which had to be shared. When food is this good, it’s got to be spread around a little.
The adviser’s steamed seabass with basil crushed potatoes, tomatoes and sauce vierge was also shared about, as was the roast Irish corn-fed chicken, creamed potato, spinach, asparagus and roasting juices.
The night went on and we ended up downstairs. The nine of us talked about the food for the rest of the evening and wondered why, when people talk about fine dining in Belfast and someone mentions Shu, the reaction invariably is: “Oh yeah! I forgot about Shu!” God forgive us.(Extracts from bill for nine)
Calf’s tongue £8.50
Risotto of summer vegetables £8.50
Rocket & parmesan salad £3.50
Bottle Picpoul £19.50
253 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7EN
Tel: 028 9038 1655