Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Joris Minne: Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Cafe

There’s no table dancing these days in the premises that was once Larry’s Piano Bar, but the food has certainly changed for the better.

One of the great developments of post-Troubles Belfast is the proliferation of the arts and entertainment in the city and throughout Northern Ireland. A lengthy list of performing arts centres that includes new theatres, libraries and galleries dotted everywhere from Strabane and Omagh to north Belfast and Ballymena has been or is about to be completed.

If we are not careful we will be reshaped into the cultured lot we used to be before the Troubles with poets, dramatists, musicians, dancers, sculptors and painters popping up from behind every cappuccino joint in Northern Ireland.

Yet there is something to be said for the bleak years when the Troubles effectively killed off the more mainstream arts. Apart from the Belfast Festival at Queen’s the city was culturally dead.

There was, during these times, a bit of life and music and food but it was confined to a handful of bars and restaurants still open after 6pm. These were places where the crack was intense. The mood in the original Kitchen Bar, for instance, an oasis of anti-sectarianism where policemen could rub shoulders with republicans (if not actually speak to them), was almost apocalyptic. You’d go to the Kitchen on a Monday afternoon and walk straight into a Friday night and give up hope of ever leaving after the second pint. Life was short, what the hell, who knew if the place would still be standing the next day. This could be your last pint.

Larry’s Piano Bar in Bedford Street was another temple to which end-of-the-world nihilists (among whom the adviser was occasionally present) who didn’t care anymore would go for a night out. Larry’s was technically a restaurant but the food they served was no more than a licensing requirement allowing them to serve drink late. Which meant that if somebody asked you to meet them for dinner at Larry’s it was because they were going to get smashed and wanted you to get full too.

Larry’s became so well known for its anarchic approach to catering that it developed an alternative reputation as the place where you could dance on the tables. And people did. Every night. If Free Presbyterians, Catholic Pioneers and other concerned observers ever wanted to point the finger at the downfall of Western civilisation through ungodly behaviour and the abuse of the Devil’s buttermilk, all they had to do was peer in through Larry’s big windows while the tables inside creaked and groaned under the weight of dancing guests. It was not classy, but it was right for the time.

A few years after the Troubles sort of ended, a light went on in Larry’s and people started blinking in the brightness and the table dancing stopped. To add to the new dawn of civilisation, someone fell from the mezzanine during a table dance and that was the end of that. The food was still bad and even though it was not a priority, people stopped going altogether and next thing there was a new name above the door — Wild Willy’s Steak House.

This didn’t last long either and recently the place changed hands once again and is now called Harlem. To emphasise just how much of a sea-change the premises has undergone, Harlem has no drinks licence. Not yet, anyway.

I met a close friend from Lancashire in Harlem for lunch and clearly visible were remaining vestiges of anarchy, as if the ghost of Larry still supervised the place. I had tried to call the previous day to book a table but no-one ever answered the phone. “Ah, that’s because the phone hasn’t been working for two months,” the server greeting us at the door explained cheerfully. “But we have no room for you anyway,” he added more glumly.

Then the maitre d’, a kindly young Catherine Deneuve lookalike with French plait and expensively-cut grey dress, swooped down in front of us and suggested we go for a drink and come back in 15 minutes – a table would be reserved and ready for us then. Things were looking up — and upmarket, too.

It wasn’t her fault that every bar in Belfast was shut until 5pm. It was Good Friday. We got a miserable Coke in the Europa’s piano bar (see what we did there?) and went back and sure enough we were whisked past the waiting queues to a table in the heart of this big bustling bistro.

And how changed it is. The mood is very warm and cosy with white wooden panelling all around, sofas, hundreds of large framed shots of scenes from New York, leather sofas, mismatched furniture – it’s like Made in Belfast’s straighter, older brother.

The food is unambitious but good nonetheless. A seafood chowder, which had generous bits of salmon and cod, was livened up with three big mussels that must have been carefully added at the right time as their salty, iron flavour shone through.

The quiche, which many have commented on online, was very good. Freshly made — the consistency of the soft beaten egg showed it had been very recently cooked — it was endowed with fresh bits of tomato, onion, ham and lots of cheese. The crumbly short crust pastry was perfect. The onions might have made a better impression had they been caramelised or at least softened for longer but still, the whole thing was a joyful and comforting little dish. Interestingly, the portion was a quarter cut, so I’m pretty sure they make these almost to order rather than let them sit for ever. The Lancashire lad’s cod and chips was acceptable and came with a pot of bright green mushy peas. The batter looked a bit lifeless and soggy but he was happy and he knows a thing or two about food.

Paying the bill revealed more anarchy – sorry, we don’t take cards. No phones, no card machines, no drink. I don’t mind this so long as there’s a clear warning sign. You read it here first, however.

We noticed many of the tables were glass-topped with arranged seashells on display underneath. There’ll be no table dancing here. But that’s ok because at last, here is a restaurant that is drawing crowds in the daytime and deserves to last.

The bill

Soup £3.95

Chowder £6.50

Fish and chips £8.50

Quiche £6.25

Total £25.20

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