Newly refurbished hotel serves up quality food at the right price in Belfast’s student quarter
Students have the life of it. For all their moaning and groaning about poverty, workloads and shanty-town accommodation, they still seem to have more hang-overs, more laundry and more cars than many grown-ups I know.
If they are that poor how can they afford to drink so much they forget that Belfast's Holyland is not a floodlit Breffni Park where hurling and camogie can be played at county level at 3 o'clock on a Sunday morning; where do they get the money to eat so much red meat as to provide them with those ruddy cheeks (particularly the Tyrone ones, and that's just the women) and have you seen the price of those O'Neill's tops? I speak as a parent, therefore I am completely and freshly briefed on this.
Or am I just falling into the trap of prejudice, the same small-mindedness that left so many bigots and racists convinced that the Romanians who fled the country were actually Mercedes-Benz owners for whom begging was a profession and racist thugs an occupational hazard?
Perhaps I am. Yet I can't help notice how many great places there are to eat and drink within a bottle-throw of Queen's University.
The Bot, the Egg and the Wellington Park Hotel must surely rely heavily on the student dollar for much of their turnover — and then there's Molly's Yard, Cayenne, ME:NU, Conor ... all of these and plenty more that are high-quality eateries.
The most recent arrival among this stable is Dukes at Queens, the refurbished hotel with its fancy new brasserie.
An established feature on the corner of University Street and Botanic Avenue, the elegant Dukes always enjoyed a pretty good reputation for its rooms and its restaurant.
It's all been done up again and following a lengthy closure has re-opened in recent months, bringing back a much-needed hub of light and hospitality to this part of the avenue.
If anything, this is Belfast's Latin quarter. While the Dublin Road has lost its old Golden Mile nickname and while the Cathedral Quarter emerges as the new hot spot of recent years, Botanic Avenue still retains its authentic charms as a Bohemian enclave where odd-ball coffee shops, book shops and fancy dress shops flourish.
Botanic is where the first lapdancing saloon in Northern Ireland opened and the brilliant old Arts Theatre used to be here, too — it still stands but it's been years since the stage was lit.
Nonetheless, the Empire comedy club is running well and a string of good Chinese restaurants are doing a turn, so there's life here yet. Which might explain why Dukes Hotel's owners have spent so much on doing the place up.
Happily, the restaurant seems to be one of the decent ones in the university area. A recent lunch with a close political pal (I paid) revealed sturdy and robust, value-for-money gut-fillers at lunchtime in a comfortable bar cum dining room.
On a hot summer’s day, a double gammon steak with parsley sauce, chips and cabbage might appear intolerably inappropriate but such is the power and strength of Dukes dining room air-conditioning system that a winter dish seemed totally correct.
While the politician went for the seafood pasta — a middle-of-the-road, creamy affair that couldn't possibly offend anyone even if it had few visible bits of fish or crustacean — I launched into the very generous dish of gammon as if it were November.
Gammon, cabbage and parsley are not elitist ingredients so there's no point in expecting any of these to make a silk purse. But so well-cooked was this simple stuff that, just for a moment, it touched greatness.
Hunger is a great seasoning and I admit I was so famished that day that a raw chicken's head eaten through a hole in the chair would have been appealing, but the gammon was excellent and as enjoyable as a good quality rib-eye steak.
Salty and dry (gammon can be so slippery and greasy), the gammon was well accompanied by the sauteed cabbage, which was not overdone and the parsley sauce that was not weighed down with MSG.
More cabbage would have balanced the dish better, especially when the cabbage is this good, and more sauce to make the whole lot a bit more decadent wouldn't have cost the cook more.
Perhaps they were conscious that the fancy pants look of the new Dukes means you can't slop out big farmyard portions of greens.
The chips were up there among the best available anywhere. Chunky, hand-cut, sparklingly crispy and hot, one portion was plenty for two strapping men.
This brasserie is not going to set the culinary world on fire but it will satisfy a growing demand for value for money.
This is excellent value, particularly at lunchtime. If you can get past the fact that everyone in this university area is young, beautiful and gifted, it's a good spot for a business lunch, full of hidden corners and pillars.
On the other hand it's bright and the choice of bar food and brasserie lunches will allow for the blandest to the slightly adventurous guest to exercise his or her going-out-on-someone-else's-expense skills. Either that, or in fact it's totally aimed at the students.
Soups, pasta, chicken kebabs with wood-fired vegetables and chilli butter, beef, seafood or chicken stir-fry, pizzas, panini and sandwiches are not a far cry from the dinner menu where Zanzibar chicken (marinated in coconut milk and Indian spices) vies with spicy baby meatballs served with spaghetti.
Ok, on second thoughts, it's for students. But I won't apologise. I still think it's worth the money.
Grilled gammon: £6.95
Lge sparkling water: £3.50