Rhubarb restaurants and their Barbie-pink graphics have been popping up around Belfast like a bright rash. There's one in Little Victoria Street next to the reptile shop. On the other side of the snakes is Ginger which completes the cartoon joke neatly.
There was a second Rhubarb on the Castlereagh Road (reviewed last May) but a separation of powers which involved a tussle over the name and brand resulted in its transformation to Little Lily's. Meanwhile, Lily's in the Lisburn Road is now the Albany. Confused? Try this: there's another Rhubarb now on Wellington Place.
The original Rhubarb is a tiny, boothed chapel which is cheap and cheerful. But the quality is good. Chef patron Norman Green has battled hard to make the thirty-seater pay off and has succeeded. The new Rhubarb is not replacing the old one but complementing it and, judging by the clever branding, it looks like more will come.
The Wellington Place operation is eccentric and Bohemian, having installed itself in what looks like a former 19th century shop with flouncy frontage.
The pink graphics are straight from a cartoon strip and give the building a punk Victorian flavour. Step inside and the theme is slightly altered, a bit formica café, a bit historic tea room. But there's a distinct air of professionalism about the place: chefs in their whites peer out curiously from the kitchen, visible at the back of the restaurant, to check out new arrivals. The front of house guy is fit and able and a few nights ago was managing the entire place alone with grace, speed and lightness of touch.
It's a warm and comfortable place even on a night of gales and heavy rain, enough to test any draft excluder to destruction. And it's BYO. The man says first things first: do you need this opened or is it screw top? Immediately he understands the fundamentals of hospitality: make sure your guests have a drink as soon as they come in.
Anyone who doesn't see to this – and there are plenty of them who leave you waiting for centuries at the table with no menu and no drink creating nervous ticks and impatience which rise into an ever mounting rage and deep loathing to the point of pathological breakdown, when the simplest thing in the world is to offer and then quickly provide drink – should not be in the restaurant business.
The evening menu reads reassuringly of comfort food; it's funny how culinary adventurism remains dormant during the winter months. There are mussels in garlic and white wine cream (sic) with grilled bread for starter or main, soup of the day, risotto with confit of chicken leg, rocket and parmesan (starter or main), goat's cheese salad with onion marmalade, curried croutons and watercress or salt and chilli prawns with Asian salad and chilli mayo (starter or main). The adviser's risotto is short on chicken and rich in mushrooms, which are unexpected and unmentioned. It is nonetheless sound, tasty, well-cooked.
The prawns are fine, although surprisingly the mayo is in short supply and the salad bed could have done with a dressing.
But Rhubarb goes into gear for the mains and a dish of seabass fillet with spiced potato cake, pak choi, prawns and brown garlic jus induces a smile and a bit of hand rubbing. Seabass is the minute steak of the ocean and no longer holds any attraction for me. But this one has been revitalised with an extraordinary group of potato cake pieces which look at first like gnocchi and then like small Chinese dumplings. They are exquisite and as light and intense as both.
The seafood risotto with chilli rocket and parmesan is no less exciting and packed solid with white fish and salmon, mussels and an occasional prawn. It is not mountainous but its flavours are as deep as the sea itself.
Other mains include an intriguing baby beetroot linguine with chilli and salted peanuts and more conventional crispy pork belly with champ, red cabbage, butternut squash and red wine jus, just what you might consider in the depths of winter.
Rhubarb in Wellington Place is worth a rattle. Three courses for under £60 made possible by the bring your own policy will always have an extra appeal in the lean weeks of the new year.
Risotto starter £6.50
Seafood risotto (main) £13.50
Apple crumble £5.95
Sticky toffee pudding £5.95
Sparkling water £2.50
58 Wellington Place, Belfast
Tel: 028 9032 8844