Once Northern Irish people get a hold of something, they’re like terriers and refuse to let go. If your great granny was an Orangewoman, chances are that you’ll want to protect your cultural identity and do the same thing.
If you vote SDLP, it’s because you can’t help yourself — it’s the party your family has voted for ever since Lantern Jaws Devlin and Gerry Fitt established it. And if your dad drove a Massey Ferguson, odds are pretty high that you’re driving the same tractor around the farm.
This has happened to a menu that reared its head in Belfast (Cayenne) about 20 years ago for the first time. Once we’d seen salt and chilli squid, dry-aged steak , and posh burgers appearing more widely in the last five years, it was clear that the love affair between Belfast and bistro food had taken a firm grip.
That’s all very well for those of us who, like the foreign country we like to visit every year, don’t know much about the subject but sure as hell know what we like. Salt and chilli squid, dry-aged steak and burgers have become the most trusted quality measures and indicators when describing one’s restaurant experience.
What you now find is that armies of roving diners who don’t know much but know what they like, go from bistro to bistro ordering the same starter, mains and desserts, and as a result have become specialists and experts in this very narrow field, comparing them with devastating precision or in glowing, qualified admiration.
If your squid, steak and burger fail the test, no matter how fabulous your fish, vegetarian and game offers are, then news of your reputation as a restaurateur spreads like wildfire through the forests of Twitter and Facebook.
Now there’s a new contender shouldering its way into the bistro ring of fire: The Graduate. Part of Kieran Cassidy’s historic Hatfield Bar operation, the pleasant bar, restaurant and café is a welcome addition to the Lower Ormeau. It looks great, with its bare-wood floor, brickwork and high banquettes and good lighting. It’s comfortable and friendly, the staff are genuinely charming and attentively led by Maitre D’, Andy.
And the food’s not bad. It’s not great either and ranges from staggeringly good to hopeless. It could be that the food offer isn’t really being taken seriously — the last orders are at 8pm, yet the bar remains open until 1am at weekends — although many regulars have told me they think the food is spot on.
Yet the chef shows some great touches. A risotto not meant as a starter was nonetheless reduced so as to become one — this was a small act of hospitality that goes a long way in building brownie points. The risotto’s rice was slightly underdone but still packed with mushroom and cheesy flavours. The adviser’s mackerel pâté was excellent, light and fluffy, full of smoky fish tastes and served in a cute covered, airtight pot with plenty of toast.
The cheeseburger she had to follow was perfectly decent with a quality brioche bap and very fresh shoestring fries. But the density of the burger was an issue. This issue is arising more and more often as the burger makes increasing numbers of appearances on these bistro menus. A butcher and a chef will always go for the denser model — solidly packed and juicy — and many diners love it this way. We like the crumblier version, one that has been charred a bit and which is easier to bite into and matches the consistency of the bap, lettuce, tomato and whatever else in there.
Medallions of lamb were outstandingly good and there were half a dozen of them. Beautifully cooked pink with good charring on the outside, they were, however, almost ruined by an inedible gravy, fondant potatoes and root vegetables including pine kernels — they had all suffered some dreadful abuse, possibly in a microwave, possibly in an oven in which other incompatibles spoilt their flavours ... whatever it was, it was woeful. The same thing was inflicted on an otherwise sound lemon posset, which was served beneath an acid bath of woodland berries and their jus.
Staff at The Graduate are good at hospitality and approach it intelligently and genuinely. With more consistency in the quality of the food it should build up a strong and loyal local clientele.
Mackerel pâté £4.95
Small chicken goujons £3.95
Main chicken goujons £6.95
Lamb medallions £9.95
Spring water £1.60
Sticky toffee pudding £3.50
Pint Guinness £3.20
Glass Cabernet sauvignon £3.75
Diet Coke £1.60
130 Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 2EB.
Tel: 028 9023 8825.