There’s a place for everybody in Belfast. The city’s rich restaurant spectrum stretches from interesting suburban takeaways to urban fine dining with a raft of stuff in between.
What we don’t have, however, is any of those fried chicken restaurants like you get in the southern states of the US. From Washington DC, head south until you get to Miami and every town and city on the way will have a southern fried chicken shack, take-away or restaurant, many of which are serving their own secret recipe of battered chicken served with various sauces, sweet potato chips and so on.
The closest I have found to this is, unexpectedly, the Square on the Dublin Road. I say unexpectedly because it doesn’t market itself as a fried chicken house. It looks more like a mildly posh, vaguely modern, any-city restaurant, the kind you’d nip in to at lunchtime for a quick main course of something and a glass of wine.
Yet, by the time I had left the place the other evening, I felt I’d had enough fried food to see me through until Christmas. There was crispy bang bang chicken salad, crispy salt and chilli chicken, chicken Milanese. And it wasn’t just the chicken — there was escalope of pork, hake tempura and crisp-skinned salmon.
There were lots of other things which weren’t fried, of course, and some which were, but shouldn’t have been. Sauteed potatoes are supposed to be shallow fried and moved about a bit (or jumped up and down, literally) while frying, but these were deep fried potato chips, just cut in roundels. They were, however, golden, crispy and irresistible.
Four of us turned up on a busy Saturday night to find Rory McIlroy and family enjoying their dinner without being harassed. This immediately gave rise to the thought that The Square is actually one of those super-cool, understated places frequented by the publicity-shunning cognoscenti. Nobody was bothering them, except us, although we tried not to stare.
The menu this night did have a lot of chicken and the front of house staff led by Michael were keen to please. “If there isn’t anything on the menu you’d like tell us and we’ll get it for you ... chicken nuggets, anything at all, really.” The menu helpfully includes a section called Signature Dishes. Here you will find salt & chilli squid, prawns in garlic butter, Caesar salad, crispy roast duck breast with caramelised orange sauce, grilled fillet steak with pepper or béarnaise sauce and roast monkfish. The night we were there, the monkfish came with a curry and mango sauce.
The youngest one’s bang bang was frankly more bland bland. It looked great, all gnarly, crunchy and dark on its bed of raw carrot julienne but it was devoid of any flavour. The advisor’s grilled fillet with béarnaise was average although the sauce itself had lots of tarragon and buttery depth and no overwhelming vinegariness, which is a common affliction.
The monkfish, two whole tails (pan-roasted), were pretty good, with excellent texture although again the flavour seemed to have partially been lost along the way. The curry sauce was far too sweet, sugary and fruity. But lots of others were enjoying it. It’s that kind of restaurant, with people of a certain age and appetite for stuff that’s sinful and not normally recommended by your GP.
We overdid it with the orders for chips and sautéed potatoes and I now wish I’d had some of the healthier looking options like the mother-in-law’s lamb chops.
This was a very good choice, even if the lamb was cooked beyond medium as she had requested. The meat was tender and sweet, the fatty bit at the thin end of the rib was delicious and crispy and we were all staggered by the fact that there were five chops, each bigger than the next one.
The Square has been around for a long time. I remember going there for the first time some 15 years ago. Its menu is attractive especially to those who don’t like to think too much about what choices to make.
The front of house is exemplary and would make you want to go back. But I’m not convinced by the quality-to-price ratio. It’s expensive. The prawns in garlic butter are a steep £12.95 as a starter — there are half a dozen or so on the plate and, fair enough, they are decent-sized langoustines. But they are no more exotic or exciting than good scampi you’d get in a pub.
The Square is good at the fried stuff, though. If they keep the front of house staff and change the chef to an American-trained southern fry specialist, source some quality chicken and dress the staff in denim overalls The Square could become a rebranded crispy chicken shack. Until it does, it will be just okay with a bland identity and expensive food. And for many in Belfast, that’s just what’s wanted.
Prawn starter x 2 £25.90
Salt & chilli chicken £6.95
Bang bang chicken £6.95
Loin of lamb £21.95
Fillet steak £24.95
Sauteed pots £1.95
Tobacco onions £2.25
Tart tatin £5.95
Diet Coke x 2 £3.60
Pint Heineken £4.75
Bottle Fleurie £23
Large Sparkling water £3.25
88 Dublin Road, Belfast BT2 7HF
Tel: 028 9023 9933