Why this unpretentious, up-and-coming Belfast restaurant deserves to take its place among the city’s culinary stalwarts
The restaurant business is a constantly revolving door through which newcomers frequently enter and exit. Running a restaurant is probably one of the most precarious ways to make a living. And the regular rise and fall of eating houses are indicators of many things: trends, fashions, economic highs and lows and all sorts of ungovernable variables.
Belfast is no different from any other city. There is a core of restaurants that will always be part of the scenery here and this core respects the need to surmount trends and fashions, economic turbulence, war and pestilence by adapting and flexing with the times, like a dancing partner with the devil.
There are restaurants that deserve to die and others that, if the world were fair, would deserve to earn their owners a fortune. One such is 21 Social in Hill Street.
Formerly the spectacularly brutalist Potthouse, 21 Social has had some of those concrete edges file down a bit. The mood is calmer, the modern décor is welcoming and soft and the gentle murmur of two or three televisions tuned into the sports channel provide instant company.
Which is a good thing because the place is nearly empty, save three or four tourists from over the road at the Merchant Hotel. Yet, it should be filled because there are few if any things about this place to upset the visitor. It’s warm and the furniture is comfortable. It’s been cleverly designed to create lots of intimate little nooks and crannies where you can talk privately and still be part of the general crowd. The bar is a delightful curvature that snakes along the curvy back wall and morphs into the food servery, behind which you have a full view of the kitchen.
The server is seasoned and expert, yet young and bright and while drinks are ordered the clipboard menu quickly reveals a decently varied list of conventional but appetising meals.
To get you going, the choice of soup and wheaten, duck liver pate, squid, Caesar salad, smoked haddock chowder and mushrooms on toasted crusty bread all sound a bit tired and naff. You read on looking for a bit of inspiration but other than a Dexter burger there’s little to set your world on fire.
But it becomes quickly apparent that just because it all sounds ordinary doesn’t mean it is. For instance, among the mains is an option for a small portion of Dundrum mussels in coconut coriander cream with curry oil and crusty bread. I have this as a starter. It’s hearty, the mussels are voluptuous and the liquor is comforting and deeply flavoured, with coriander and curry easily outgunning the sweet coconut. The result is a well balanced and beautifully timed dish full of fresh brininess made a little more sophisticated.
The day’s special is hake filet on mash with a poached egg. The other two go for the Dexter and a roast chicken, pesto and Parmesan ciabatta sandwich. The three arrive promptly and without fuss and the mood at the table is happy. We’re off to see the new Harry Potter after this and, after all the dark reviews, I feel this may be a bit like the last meal before hell.
The hake is delivered and looks magnificent on its elevated platform of mash and crowned with a crumbed poached egg. A buttery jus surrounds the whole plate and it
tastes as good as it looks — the fish is perfectly cooked, well sealed and enjoying the slow, warm drenching from the pierced poached egg yolk. The mash beneath is a warm thick bed of moist, salty potato mousseline. It is heavenly.
Silence at the table indicated the Dexter burger was going down a treat, as was the duck leg. The advisor said it’s good to go conventional from time to time when it’s done as well as this.
A treacle tart with clotted-cream ice cream, a berry compote and a ginger and lemongrass cheesecake are as described. They don’t have the presence of the starters and mains, which had been transformed from humble dishes into examples of excellence. The hot chocolate, however, is the best this side of the Madrid chocolateria by far. Thick, sinful and completely addictive.
21 Social is a very good restaurant and has no pretensions. The deli will serve all the drinkers’ favourites such as steak and onion with horseradish mayo on focaccia or ciabatta with rocket and skinny fries or prawn with chive and tomato mayo or a BLT, and indicates a democratic touch. There are ‘snack boards’ of charcuteries, ploughman’s lunch or Irish cheeses with damson chutney and lemon thyme oatcakes at prices between £5.25 and £7.95.
It deserves a turn, and when the quality is this good and the prices so reasonable it’s a place I’ll happily spend my own money the next time.
Duck liver pate: £4.95
Dexter burger: £8.95
Kid’s lunch: £5
Treacle tart: £4.95
Ice cream: £1.50
Hot chocolate: £2.20
Diet Coke: £1.80
Diet Sprite: £1.80
Lrg sparkling water: £4
Gls shiraz: £4.50
Gls pinot grigio: £4.25
Two coffees: £4