When Northern Ireland minister Richard Needham walked around the derelict and decaying Hill Street, Talbot Street and Waring Street in the middle of old Belfast in the late 1980s, he saw something others hadn't noticed. Cobbles. He must have thought, ‘Here's an area that, if you squint your eyes, take a massive leap of faith and imagine it on a postcard, could look like it had some of the higgledy piggledy charms of old town Dublin’. He had seen the future and the future was cobbled.
We all love cobbles, especially at Christmas time because they reinforce those cosy old images of Victorian town scenes, horse hooves and cartwheels clattering over the little square granite stones. But in the ’80s we were too busy trying to get on with our business-as-usual approach — fancy ideas of Belfast city centre being turned into a charming, chocolate-box old town were not really central to our outlook and anyway, it was crazy to even think then that Belfast would ever be a tourist magnet.
So respect to those for having the vision because otherwise this miserable inner-city area hugging the northern flanks of St Anne's Cathedral might never have become Cathedral Quarter.
Given some investment, this dense urban sector was slowly transformed into a beacon of commercial and creative success. Old warehouses were resurrected, and an arts centre, a print works, a TV production company, two hotels, galleries, bars, cafes and restaurants now create a boho centre of which we can be quite proud.
Despite our economic woes, there is a buzz in this old quarter of Belfast. It is as if the original heart of the city has been given a pacemaker and things are on the move again, we're all jolly once more and having a laugh in and around Hill Street.
Except in the Hill Street Brasserie. Invisible to passersby outside, the interior is actually bright and cosy and the food is not bad as long as you aren't too fussy. But it does take itself a teensy weensy bit too seriously. This is Hill Street and you come here to enjoy yourself and eating out is supposed to be fun.
Once it catches itself on and matches the mood to the decor it could be in danger of becoming a happy, swinging and more economical alternative to some of the more expensive offerings in the neighbourhood.
One thing they need to get right at Hill Street Brasserie is what they are actually offering the diner. The sign outside declared lunch at £17 — that was cheerful enough. Once inside, however, we discovered this was not the case and that there was only the three-course Christmas menu that was a pound more. In the scheme of things, this would be no problem, but best keep the customers’ expectations in check by communicating accurately.
The prices are reasonable and the room is attractive in a well-lit, modern kind of way. It has comfortable banquettes and an oddly undulating stone-flagged floor and it's got that current Euro-bistro vibe that puts visitors and locals at ease. And the bathrooms are pretty cool, too.
But the mood in Hill Street Brasserie is as icy as in a Reykjavik bank. The waitresses are fine but the more senior people seem distinctly chilly.
Amplifying the froideur, the starter of home-baked ham and poached egg on toasted muffin with mustard hollandaise was cold as a corpse. The muffin was bare and not toasted. This was a shame as the ham was excellent, thick and dry and the poached egg perfectly runny.
After a whispered complaint to me across the table, my Scottish compadre, who knows how to enjoy food, destroyed the evidence and ate it all up. I asked him what he would say if the waitress asked him how he'd enjoyed it. He could hardly complain that it was cold and then wolf it down, I argued. He shrugged.
I got on with my chicken skewer, which was generous and warm and the accompanying satay sauce which was spicy and peanutty. The plates were cleared, we weren't asked for our opinion, so nothing was said.
The ‘wild mushroom risotto’ was ok but not made with wild mushrooms. There were decent, tasty oyster, shiitake and button mushrooms in the mix but these are hardly wild. Wild mushrooms grow outdoors and the name infers a local product. These might be local but they are as wild as a flower arrangement on a church altar.
The risotto itself had a thick consistency, thick but not stodgy, and the Scot said he'd give it six out of 10. I eyed it longingly after looking underneath my stuffed pork roast. This was the day before the recent dioxin scare and the dish would have been good enough to be a fitting tribute to pork's memory, had a tribute been necessary. Moist and tender, the flavours shone through and harmonised well with the stuffing. But the champ underneath was too watery and light to complement and soak up the honey and mustard cream gravy.
There was plenty of comfort in the Christmas pudding with its generous blanket of custard. More fruit cake than pudding, this dessert was a great lunchtime version of the heavier-duty job you set fire to with brandy. It was luscious, fruity, crumbly and just the right temperature.
The compadre's cheese plate was impressive — there must have been half a dozen samplers, served with a decent variety of crackers.
A very nicely chilled South African Riesling helped the whole thing along and we were very reassured after ordering the bill to see the waitress retrieve the top for the half consumed bottle, wrap a little extra clingfilm around it for security and put it in a carrier bag (for discretion) so we could take it with us. She was proof there was warmth and care in the place after all.
Despite its flaws, the Hill Street Brasserie is the right kind of place for Cathedral Quarter. If they lighten up a bit and look like they're enjoying themselves, cold food and any other negative details will be quickly forgiven.
Three-course Xmas lunch x 2 £36.00
Cheese supplemenT £2