Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Joris Minne: Ten Square

My close encounter with ‘fish in a bag’ reveals that the standards have slipped in this bustling Belfast tourist hotspot

Ten Square Hotel & Bar, May St Belfast.

Fish in a bag. Whatever way you say those four little words, there’s no dignity in any of them when they’re put together like that. It's not right.

Yet as a child I remember boil-in-a-bag white bricks of cod in a parsley sauce that came in a sealed plastic bag that you boiled in water for a few minutes, snipped open along the dotted line with scissors and glopped out on a plate and it was, by and large, alright. Especially with a glass of decent Sancerre. Or Fanta, as we called it.

So when Ten Square added it to their menu, albeit hidden at the foot of the large-format single sheet of branded laminate, with the word ‘new’ in red beside it, I couldn’t resist. How can anybody walk past something like that? It’s like a freak show — it’s hard to resist the lure of the weird.

Also, it struck just the right tone following a perfunctory welcome. Thankfully a friendlier, more helpful server took the orders. Three of us on a Tuesday lunchtime looking for relief from the economic gloom, the weather and the general downcast nature of the day agreed to drop into the Ten Square restaurant because it always seemed busy as hell. There’s no better advertisement for a restaurant than a packed house. We went early and right enough, the place soon filled up.

A shared dish of nachos with sour cream, melted cheese, tomato salsa and chopped jalapeno peppers went down easily but only because we were hungry. It was huge, in fairness, but it wasn’t great. The tomato salsa was too sweet, the jalapenos too tired to fight back and the melted cheese a bit on the light side. Pleasant enough though with the pinot grigio and there’s something in the informality of sharing a dish that bonds people and creates a soothing mood.

The other two had ordered ‘brick’ chicken and grilled salmon. In other words, these two adventurers — let’s call them Bronagh and Colin — normally game for anything, had bottled the fish in a bag and gone for comfort.

But when mine arrived looking like a used Pampers nappy folded over to hide the gruesome innards, I wondered for a second whether I really ought to relinquish the dish and ask for something less offensive. In fact, the impact of the look of the thing was so shockingly awful I felt that now was the right time to resign from the best job in the world as a restaurant critic or hand myself in to the police before I shot myself so as never to have to look at something so cursed, benighted and repulsive ever again.

I mustered my inner courage and slowly tackled the thing. It sat on the plate like roadside litter. What made things worse was the dollop of yellow lumpy mash tucked up right next to it, touching the paper.

What would the adviser do, I wondered. Persevere. The chemistry of it — fresh fish inside a bag, cooked, flavours maintained within — makes sense. Theoretically, it’s bound to be fabulous. But while it might well have had the potential to be fabulous, in reality it was far from it. Once I got the bag opened, inside lay what once might have been some nice seafood. There were mussels in there, and prawns and a couple of generous lumps of white fish. There was also greenery that I think was spinach. But it was so overcooked as to be hardened and tasteless, never mind insanely unappetising, that I could only manage a few mouthfuls before submitting. The overcooking of the fish in a bag is forgivable, a couple of minutes too much can wreck fish and seafood. But this was overcooking on a scale not seen since Chernobyl. The mash was worse. I can't explain how the mash could taste so old and fusty and, despite its yellowy hue indicating a ton of butter has been mixed in, so dry.

The brick chicken with sweet potato and salmon with green beans and new potatoes were good raw materials that had suffered at the hands of the Ten Square kitchen and were also intolerably overcooked and dry. The only acceptable dish was a good little rocket and Parmesan salad with surprise scallions.

It’s a shame that a hugely successful hotel and restaurant in such a prime location should let its once-brilliant standards down so badly. I’ve eaten in Ten Square’s grill half a dozen times in the last two years and watched a steady decline, not in the front-of-house service — the barmen and servers are pros — but in the food. A place like this is bound to be a stopping off point for thousands of tourists each year and if this is what they’re being exposed to, then the place is letting us down badly.

The bill

Nachos £5

Brick chicken £10

Grilled salmon £11

Fish bag £11

Rocket salad £3

Wine £18

Peroni £3.45

Lrg sparkling water £4.30

Coffees x 3 £5.85

Total £71.60

twitter.com/jorisminne

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