It’s a one-man show in the kitchen, but the Lisburn Road’s new seafood restaurant proves to be a real catch during our lunchtime visit
Belfast’s Lisburn Road has become an inescapable vortex. No matter how many times I try to steer away from the place to search out good restaurants elsewhere in the north, I am drawn back to it, like a moth to a flame.
It’s a contentious place. The very mention of the Lisburn Road can be enough to transform perfectly reasonable people into deeply disturbed psychopaths caught in the inescapable grip of monstrous envy.
For those living on the frosty slopes of distant lands such as Stormont, Glengormley and Andersonstown, the very existence of the Lisburn Road makes them the have-nots in Belfast. The most tortuous aspect of this is that the road contains everything you could possibly need as a consumer, and a visit to the shiny strip where the beautiful glide about in silks and SLKs can only be delayed but never cancelled.
And anyway, it’s not a road any more. It’s a boulevard. And these days a little piece of it can be anybody’s, albeit temporarily, thanks to the ever-growing number of places in which to eat and drink. (These places need the out-of-towners to survive because despite the show of prosperity and good taste, the locals are all broke and living off one M&S lasagne per week.)
Which may explain why chef patron Neil Auterson has taken a lease on a premium space along the valley of beauty and opened his new unlicensed restaurant, Sole Seafood.
The democratic feel of Sole Seafood is underlined by simple, robust blond wood furniture, bare floor and minimal décor with clear views into the kitchen. It may feel a bit bare and echoey, but it’s oddly welcoming and makes the restaurant instantly accessible, like a canteen or one of those European city diners office workers like to use at lunchtimes.
The simple menu is reminiscent of the Mourne Seafood Bar in town. Clearly, Sole Seafood has entered MSB’s game with a similarly unimposing approach. But while the room itself might be a bit characterless (where Mourne Seafood Bar is instantly seductive), the menu promises a very interesting time at very reasonable prices.
For starters there are bread and olives, soup of the day, Sole Seafood chowder with wheaten bread and oyster crackers and seafood risotto with saffron and gremolata. But you can have other dishes as starters or mains. I like that flexibility, particularly on days when you want to enjoy flavours and textures rather than get a big feed, and a meal of two or three starters seems so much more appetising.
The three of us are freezing on this particular day and having nearly broken ankles and knees negotiating the icy footpaths (even the Lisburn Road was not immune to the forces of nature), a warm and fortifying chowder beckons. Equally tempting, the mussels that you can have in pesto broth, spicy tomato sauce or more conventional garlic and white wine cream. I have the latter, which turns out to be as generous and uplifting as the chowder. Reports from the third man who has salt and chilli squid with dips and Asian slaw are very positive.
As people drift in the restaurant takes on a much more urban neighbourhood tone and there are flashes of laughter and merriment as the BYO bottles are popped open. On this occasion, everyone here is male. And when you get a room full of men, even if it were in the Elysee Palace, you could be in a motorway truck stop anywhere in the world. And that’s what Sole Seafood feels like for a moment. But all is kept civilised by a quietly assertive front-of-house server whose charms are matched by her efficiency.
Neil Auterson is beavering away on his own in the kitchen and when you see a man working alone preparing your lunch or dinner, it seems all the more personal. Despite being one on the floor and one in the kitchen, things move along swiftly. My fritto misto arrives next and contains all the bite-size pleasures you’d expect: cod, prawns, squid, salmon and gurnard. The gurnard is today’s special and lands in a more complete form opposite me. I am not a fan – it’s too robust and the back taste is not as light as other white fish. Yet number 2 is tucking in happily. Admittedly, it does look good — a big fillet roasted golden brown, but I’m happy with my fry. The fishcakes with rocket, chilli jam and basil mayo (£5.95 as a starter, £10.95 as a main) are packed with glistening fish meat with just enough potato to keep the things intact. Side orders of champ, mixed veg and chips are excellent. It’s clear to see as much attention is spent on the detail of making even the sideshows work well.
There are many other dishes on the menu that tug hard. Oysters with horseradish, Tabasco and lemon (we have the last remaining five between us and they were huge and gorgeous); fish and chips with mushy peas and tartare sauce; fish fingers with big chips and ketchup; mackerel escabeche (cold, seared and pickled); and there are also rib-eye and chicken and broccoli pasta with chorizo cream for the squeamish.
We resist the selection of Irish cheeses with quince chutney and have one of the three desserts each. The Crème brûlée is textbook, the apple and cinnamon crumble vast and hot and the sticky toffee pudding pulsating with deep, dark and moist sweetness.
Neil Auterson is a very good chef who gives 100% to every dish, side order and mouthful that comes out of the kitchen. He just needs to re-arrange the furniture and do something about the draughty front door and then the Lisburn Road’s portfolio of eateries will be complete: Bengali, Italian, French, Chinese, American and now top-quality Irish seafood. The out-of-towners will go home happy, but still wishing they lived close by.
Sparkling water X 3: £5.85
Oysters (3): £4.50
Fritto misto: £10.95
Desserts x 3: £11.85
Cappucino x 2: £4.50