The job of restaurant criticism is a serious matter. Restaurants play a central role in our economy, they create and maintain jobs and play a huge role in a town or city's identity and reputation. They are sometimes the only stage on which visitors get a chance to exchange a few words with locals and as such provide one of the most accurate impressions of a place's disposition towards the outside world. They are the shop windows of our society. They must therefore be studied very carefully and sensitively.
If you want to know what a city feels like, go to a restaurant. You'll find out soon enough if you're being well looked after, ignored or treated as a revenue stream.
Which explains why I have been to Howard Street eight times since it opened some time before Christmas ... just to be sure. By any restaurant design expert's analysis, Howard Street should not really work at all.
To reach the dining room you have to walk through a no-man's land at the front of the restaurant, an area nobody really knows what to do with. It might be a reception area or waiting area but, whatever it is, nobody wants to linger here.
So you hurry past this airlock to find peace and contentment in the dining room behind. Here is the bar, a high ceiling, good lighting and attractive, functioning furniture that has been brought back to life with a low budget. There is a little annex at the back where a table for four can squeeze in. It is like a naughty corner and, given some additional curtains, could provide a very naughty corner indeed. Tell them I sent you.
Despite the physical shortcomings and second-handedness of everything here, Howard Street still feels as if it has been around for years. Chef Marty Murphy provides that sense of permanence through his robust cooking, but front-of-house manager Niall Davis, a former business consultant who looks too young to be allowed into Lavery's, never mind in charge of this major undertaking, is equally convincing. It may be a cool spot, but old-fashioned hospitality is valued by even the trendiest set and there's plenty of it here thanks to a floor staff who know what to do and when to do it.
Marty Murphy has loads of previous. His performance at the Potted Hen in St Anne's Square will ring bells in hundreds of people whose experience there will have been very good. From the eight visits to Howard Street, I can vouch for this. In fact, he's probably even better now that he can do his thing unfettered. And his thing includes a dish of hake that, according to my aide de camp, a former fisheries fleet protection gunboat skipper who knows more about fish than Walter Ewing or John Mulholland (well, as much as), was the best he'd ever had.
Murphy's food is big and manly. It's the opposite of OX, yet, for all its muscle, it is refined, carefully composed and considered. Chowder is generous and fresh, more milky than creamy; pasta dishes are steaming and light; and the fish, which I've had on most of my visits, is always glisteningly moist, flaking and sea-scented. A smoked haddock dish with sautéed potatoes, red prawn curry and green beans is a memorable mix of salty, tangy sweetness with a little kick of chilli.
Some starters are hard not to have again and again: the spiced coconut prawn soup with tom yum and scallions is destined to become a classic and the crispy chilli beef with lime mayonnaise is addictive.
The mood and pace of the restaurant is interestingly fast at lunchtime without a sense of rush. In the evening the heart beats more slowly, yet there is nothing sloth-like about the service.
It is a worthy contender in a tight corner of the city that already boasts Deanes, Flame, James Street South and the Malt Room. I don't understand people who perversely tut-tut and shake their heads when they talk of the proliferation of restaurants in Belfast city centre. It's as if these great restaurants were a scourge on our quality of life or a blight on the landscape. Yet these are the places which are helping build the city's reputation as a culinary destination to rival any city outside London or Dublin.
I can feel my ninth visit coming on.
Stilton salad £6
Smoked salmon £7
Smoked haddock x 2 £28
Btl Paddock Chard £18
56 Howard Street, Belfast BT1 6PG.
Tel: 028 9024 8362.