The chef who started Belfast’s restaurant revival still has a wonderful way with food
And in the beginning there was Nick’s. Back in the mists of pre-ceasefire Northern Ireland there was a part of central Belfast given over to the ravages of urban decay. Around the winding narrow streets of the old town (you rarely think of Belfast as having an old town like, say, Madrid or Amsterdam) now known as theCathedral Quarter, you’d see scraggy abandoned warehouses, factories and businesses rotting away quietly a few yards only from St Anne’s noble basilica.
The silence and isolation of this part of town would be disturbed occasionally by vicious cracks of gunfire, punishment beatings and murders conducted here by paramilitaries in the knowledge that they could carry on their business in relative safety. Nobody came here for any good reason.
Until two things happened. One, an architect called Barrie Todd set up his practice here and two, Nick Price opened a restaurant aimed at yuppies. Here was the genesis, the very first cell-splitting, microscopic sprout of Belfast’s gentrification, and it was still only the Eighties.
It’s unfair to say Nick’s target was yuppies but because the second half of the Eighties was dominated in London by these young, upwardly mobile things, it felt like he was coaxing a similar phenomenon to life in Belfast. That was never going to happen. Instead, his restaurant attracted lots of normal, well-balanced and curious people who quickly spread the word that there was a restaurant a bit like the ones you get in European cities where the food’s dead good and the price is right.
Within a few years, the area was on its feet, the paramilitaries had found new killing fields and gradually we started to get to know the place as Belfast’s Temple Bar, its Latin Quarter, its Georgetown.
Thankfully, Nick and his wife Cathy have outlived the yuppies and many other social phenomena in between and the restaurant has grown. It is fair to say that this lovely big ground-floor brasserie with its light industrial feel and posher, more intimate upstairs restaurant collectively represent the birthplace of Northern Ireland’s new-generation culinary identity.
But is it still good when compared to all the other upstarts who have populated Belfast with excellence since then? The answer is firmly positive — principally because the meals can be inexpensive thanks to clever menu choices but also because no matter how low-cost you choose to go in Nick’s, the quality will be outstanding.
Last week at lunch in the big, happy (and packed) downstairs bit called the Anix, the enduring and bouncy jolliness of Nick was still evident everywhere (his wine notes have become legendary among the plonkeratti — “70 Albarino Paco and Lola 2007 12.5% £28.30: Apricots and Peaches delightful fresh wine and as well as being a great wine you just got to see the label — all retro and funky!!!”) and indeed the great man suddenly appeared as if from nowhere by my shoulder.
This can be an awkward moment for a restaurant critic — one wrong inflection here, a misinterpreted observation there and you can be slung out without ceremony. Nick Price is one of those deceptive guys whose easy Labrador pup charms conceal an intense perfectionist. The menu is a daily surprise, a constantly changing list of tempting offers presented simply and informatively with lots of references to the wines that you must consider. The wine business is another area Nick has gone into and you can tell he is doing it as much for the crack of enjoying the wines as for the money.
Three of us had starters, although these were not strictly described as such — they are possibly intended for body-conscious light grazers such as business people and ladies who lunch, people who want something of substance but not in great volumes. Among them was a goat’s cheese salad that had all the combinations of bright white cheese — dry as dust — and the lush, juiciness of dressed leaves and figs, a nice slice of seabass and an unforgettable mix of pan-fried pork and mushrooms on toasted wheaten bread (from Robert Ditty’s bakery) enriched with roast garlic, tarragon and white wine sauce.
For those of you who have to watch the gluten content, Nick’s Warehouse excels as an accommodating provider — entire gluten-free menus are available and you won’t be made to feel awkward.
The rump steak and chips at £13.95 was exceptional and full of flavour. With steaks these days you have to be brilliant. Simple meatiness isn’t enough for the curry-and-chow-mein generation whose tastebuds have now been twisted and mangled by heavy-duty spiciness. Aged, marinated, flavours enhanced by whatever means, steak is such a fine thing that it needs a bit of special effects to bring it into line with the spicy shenanigans we seem to crave more and more. This particular steak struck the right note.
The beef in black bean casserole was probably a wise choice at lunch time in that it wasn’t at all heavy or wintry, but as a result it packed little punch. Served with basmati rice on the side — the casserole came in a separate bowl — the logistics of mixing the two involved a clumsy bit of tipping a bit of one on the other. In terms of filling a hungry belly it works fine and is, I suppose, close to the spirit of a proper low-cost brasserie.
With simple lunches of club sandwich starting at £4.25 or even a potato and garlic soup with blue cheese croutons and crusty bread on the side for only £3.25, Nicks is for everyone.
And if you’re lucky enough to see the great man through the big laboratory windows in the kitchen, visible to all, then you’re in for a treat.
Goat’s cheese salad £6.95
Pork salad £7.95
Rump steak £13.95
Beef casserole x 2 £17
Coffee x 3 £6.60
Chateau Peyre Doulle £18.95