If at first you don’t succeed give up. Don’t make a fool of yourself. WC Fields’ famous words have fallen on deaf ears, however, and a Belfast restaurant which had an inauspicious start, has tried and tried and finally settled down into a comfortable rhythm.
The 4th Wall, so named as it faces the about-to-open MAC performing arts centre in St Anne’s Square (for you philistines: the fourth wall is the reference stage directors use to refer to the “wall” facing the audience) is oddly eastern European in character — battleship grey walls, brown leather banquettes and clumsy furniture.
But it has a distinct charm with great floor staff. Key to the operation is new chef Jonny Hamilton, recently poached from the Barking Dog. Hamilton has brought with him his customary levels of quality. They stand out in a city where bistro food has reached very high standards.
The French cheekily refer to this kind of dining as bistronomie, an area of the restaurant sector that has emerged very strongly and much to the chagrin of the stuffy editors of the Michelin Guide whose reliance on high church formality and ceremony is making them redundant.
Two earlier excursions to the 4th Wall had been very disappointing. Meats and fish were over-cooked to this reviewer’s palate and tasted shot through with burnt sauces.
Yet, the potential of the menu to be a big hit was always there. That’s because Stephen Jeffers, now a senior statesman among the restaurant community, was brought in as a consultant to design the food offer.
A weekend lunch for two turned into an extended moment of joy and discovery. Not that the adviser and I found anything particularly other-worldly about our plates; but there was an element of imagination and inventiveness and a clear ability to redefine old favourites to make them utterly seductive.
In fact, Jeffers’ menu was irresistible on so many fronts that we had to have three starters between us. We couldn’t go past the ham hock and piccalilli, nor the crab and brown shrimp salad and the squid was going to be ordered no matter what.
The ham hock terrine, a generous cylinder of coarse cut tender ham, looked like a salami until the knife went in and offered little resistance. The pork flavours were robust and strong and the texture perfectly balanced while the chunky piccalilli added all the tangy and vinegary sparkle needed to balance it. A few slices of toasted sour dough completed the starter.
The same, light toast accompanied the two heaped soup spoonfuls of shredded crab and small brown shrimp which had been tucked into a pair of baby cos leaves. The flavours, so delicate yet so assertive, had all the cold icy scent of a winter’s beach. Meanwhile, the vast pieces of squid rejoiced in their crispy salt and chilli covering. A bit of cayenne imbued the whole thing with a Cajun character and while this could overpower the tender squid, the final outcome was one of balance and great judgement.
The 4th Wall burger is another giant’s affair and possibly not to everyone’s taste. The adviser felt the burger was too dense and heavy to be presented as a classic-in-bun experience. But when she abandoned the bap — a very classy affair from Yellow Door — the burger made sense. It had flavour and texture but at almost an inch thick, it’s more of a Tyrone footballer’s snack than a city girl’s lunch. Her rocket salad was not great. Too oily, no balsamic tang and red onions which repeated and overwhelmed.
The pork loin, that day’s special, was on the other hand exemplary. So difficult to get right — moist but cooked through, crispy and tasty — here was the standard which would rub shoulders with the best in town. Rankin would have been proud to put his name to this. Accompanied by a tapenade mash (Listen! You can hear the tradionalists howl!) and some green beans with red wine jus, it pressed all the right buttons over and over again.
And when roast banana cheesecake with pralines and rum raisins on the side is this good, you really ought to write off the rest of the day and dive into some decent Sauternes. Which we didn’t do. But we will.
Ham terrine £5.50
Crispy squid £6.50
Crab and brown shrimp £6.75
4th Wall burger £9.50
Rocket salad £3
Pork loin £12.50
Sticky toffee pud £4.50
Large sparkling water £4.25
Heineken x 2 £3.90
Glass Rioja £5.20
Macchiato x 2 £4.50
St Anne’s Square, Belfast BT1 2LR
Tel: 028 9027 8707