It may be an international chain, but Nando’s is spicing up the food scene in Northern Ireland
Is history important and does a sense of place matter? Of course they do. History defines us, it tells us something about the human condition, and a sense of place is moulded by its history. History is all around us in the environment, in the language, in music and in work.
So when you drive past the spanking new, fabulously enticing Nando’s restaurant in Belfast’s Bedford Street you can’t help but notice all the references to Portugal, Portuguese food and wine and decor. Having limited experience of Portugal (the adviser and I once spent a memorable weekend in Lisbon) we were keen to give the place a shot. After all, the brief Lisbon experience had revealed wonderful food including fresh sardines, chicken, salads and lots of dishes made from red peppers.
Nando’s is a global phenomenon. You will find a Nando’s chicken restaurant in just about every country from Australia to Zimbabwe. But one place that remains intriguingly Nandoless is Portugal. That’s because the first Nando actually started in Johannesburg, South Africa. Don’t ask. But if you must know, visit the funky Nando website. I got bored trying to get to the bottom of it.
One thing’s for sure — while it has become a hugely successful chain of restaurants thanks to a very cool marketing strategy, the references to Portugal are as tenuous as the ‘Genuine Mexican Irish Food Served Here’ restaurant I saw in Tennessee years ago during St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Does it matter? If I were head of cultural affairs at the Portugese embassies in London or Dublin, I’d be keeping an eye on it because Nando’s may be the only three-dimensional experience people may have of Portugal, so it would be nice for it to be real. It’s not.
But that doesn’t make it bad either. I loved it. The food’s ok — fresh local chicken, flame-grilled and served in one of a small number of very reasonably priced formulae with simple side orders, starters and sauces. The big selling point is the range of chilli pepper-based peri-peri sauces that start at mild and end in the controlled explosives category.
There is a Nando culture that, to the uninitiated, may be baffling. It’s a restaurant that fuses the best bits of fast food self-service with high-class comfort.
This explains why the mood in Nando’s is a bit frantic — lots of people moving about, going to tills to place their orders, going back to their tables, only to get up again to go choose some peri-peri sauces, fill up their glasses with endless coke or iced water, cutlery, napkins and so on. Those in the know do all this effortlessly while the numpties stagger about, slack-jawed and lost, wondering if they are in a restaurant at all or in a bus station. I swear I saw one person looking up for the departures screen.
But, for those of us broad and open-minded enough to embrace the fancy new ways of 21st century dining, once you get into the groove of all this — the menu you are given as you walk in contains a five-step instruction on how to order — you settle down into a restaurant that actually looks and feels refined, cool and even a bit sexy.
The two-storey Bedford Street operation has a particularly attractive annex of a room upstairs that has back wall and ceiling lined with Portuguese cork bark and very low little bar tables that look like rosewood — the kind from Brazil you used to see on very expensive guitars. This room with its clubby feel is not exclusive but feels it. It’s the place to ask for if you decide to go and you have to get over the discomfort of eating at such low altitude, by the way.
A starter described as enough for four was indeed just that. The server set down generous pots of mixed olives, hoummos and red pepper dip with plenty of pitta bread while instructing us on where to get the sauces, cutlery, etc. The red pepper and olives were luscious and full of flavours and textures — the hoummos less so. The thing with hoummos is that it’s so subjective. The adviser was unimpressed with it because of its lumpiness and relative blandness.
As soon as these were consumed, the friendly server arrived with the main courses and further instructions on how to order desserts later. At one stage I felt like a fledgling aviator on my first lesson in full flight when the instructor has a heart attack and I’m relying on the control tower to talk me down and land the plane safely.
Interesting side dishes include ‘macho peas’, which is a coarse pea mash with parsley, mint and chilli. Plenty of crunch and deep flavours made this particularly good. The mash that the menu promised to be “velvety smooth — we defy you to find better” was tired and a bit dry but with a shake or two of added extra-extra-hot peri-peri it came back to life for a bit.
It’s all chicken and veggie dishes at Nando’s, apart from one steak option. They have a while to go before they can match the quality and succulence of the chicken in nearby Made in Belfast, but for this kind of money — £60 odd for a family of four including bottle of wine — the value is excellent. The wine, incidentally, is seriously good value. A bottle of Portuguese rosé, Pink Elephant, was among the best rosés I ever tasted — smooth but dry and aromatic without being flowery — and it cost less than £14.
Fair play to the corporate approach. It’s safe, it works, it won’t break the bank and it brings people out of the house — we went on a Tuesday night and the place was packed.
Henry Ford may be right after all when he said that history was bunk. But once you understand that Nando’s is more a global kind of place than a South African or Portuguese or whatever its identity is, then you can enjoy it for what it is — a modern, cheap, cheerful and very comfortable haven with few surprises. What surprise there was lay in the tiny little coconut tart and custard pie (£1.33 each and designed to enjoy with a coffee). Both were outstanding and would have done any Parisian patissier proud.
All together now starter £8.84
Kids burger £4.04
Half chicken, macho peas and mash £8.79
Chicken wrap £7.41
Half chicken, coleslaw, chips £8.79
Garlic bread £1.89
Cokes x 2 £3.98
Tarts x 2 £2.66
Ice cream £2.77