The Malone Road area has been crying out for a good restaurant... and it’s finally arrived
It can't be easy finding the right formula for a restaurant in the leafy end of town. Belfast's BT9 sector has seen a huge influx of yummy mummies, big motors and design-sensitive residential developments in the last six or seven years.
With them have come (and gone) the associated support services — shops that sell hand-made Belgian chocolates, fashion stores packed with £2,000 Italian handbags, beauticians, dieticians, personal coaches and therapists who will re-map your dog's aggressive behaviour.
Yet surprisingly few restaurants have popped up in the area during the boom years.
There is only a handful of good, value-for-money eating places and coffee shops such as Pizza Express on the Lisburn Road, Yellow Door, Cargoes, Shu and Arizona.
This is all the more surprising considering the disposable income, age groups and the general familiarity of locals with continental tastes.
But tastes are unpredictable around here and who knows what will work?
A new kid on the block that promises to have the answer, even if the spending climate in BT9 has cooled recently, looks set to win over hearts in the longer term.
The Barking Dog is the fruit of the same imaginative brain which gave us the gates to burger heaven — Gourmet Burger Bank on the Belmont Road.
An earlier Gourmet Burger experiment on the Malone Road premises beside the Bot (older readers will remember Maloneys, which stood here for years before it was transformed into Rain City) failed. But this did not deter owner Sam Spain from trying something else and the new bar/restaurant was born.
The Barking Dog environment is precisely what you want in a storm, be it economic, emotional or just weather. The bare brick walls, gentle lighting, small and pretty canvasses and framed mirrors on the walls and solid modern wooden tables and chairs create a happy mood marriage made somewhere between a rustic French gite and a tastefully restored Ulster farmhouse.
There is a bar with its own menu and upstairs there is a room that will take a party of 30 or more for private functions. The restaurant on the Sunday night we visited with three children was packed.
The Barking Dog (Sam Spain's love of mutts got the better of him) has only been going a couple of months yet there's a sense about the place that it has always been there.
The staff is a team of well-seasoned journeymen and women you will have spotted in earlier careers in Aldens and Roscoff and they know a thing or two about how to look after guests without ingratiating themselves.
The food is top-end, bistro-class nosh. One of the great attractions is the availability of the very tempting bar menu (a pint of prawns aioli for £8, Irish rock oysters, £1 a pop, crab on toast £6.95) and the restaurant menu and just about anything you want whether you're in the bar, the restaurant or sitting outside with the smokers. You order it, they'll find you.
The children were told they could have custom-made pasta, rice, vegetarian dishes, mussels, freshly battered chicken fillets and hand-cut chips. Naturally, depressingly, they settled for the latter.
There are interesting things here you won't readily find anywhere else.
The ham hock terrine with celeriac remoulade is just the kind of thing I can never resist and you won't see too much remoulade about. But then the lure of the scallops on black pudding with cauliflower puree was equally tempting. So I had both.
They were the kind of tasty starters you want to stuff in your mouth in the foulest of manners, munching noisily and dribbling a bit. These are guilty pleasures to be really enjoyed privately and can sometimes provide the most liberating experience in the world.
But relaxed and all as the Barking Dog might be, the adviser had me in her sights and I could tell the laser death rays were being warmed up. I resisted the urge...
Her crayfish salad was vast and came in an annoying bowl-on-its-side, the kind you used to see in low-star hotel restaurants near regional airports in England.
The contents, however, were very good. Crayfish tails have more texture and bite than prawns and the adviser was satisfied that the marie-rose sauce blanketing the whole affair was on the mark.
The smoked haddock on crushed potatoes with poached egg and béarnaise was perfect. Everything here combined to create the dish you really need on a wet day. The fish was firm, moist and flaked off the knife, the egg was runny and the sauce mildly vinegary, buttery and creamy to soak well into the roughly cut up bed of new potatoes with skins and all underneath.
The adviser's steak and chips was a decent sirloin with excellent hand-cut fries. She says she usually likes the cheaper rib-eye with chips but managed to get through the sirloin nonetheless.
Some things the Barking Dog does brilliantly and beyond the limits of its quality bistro confines.The rocket salad, for instance, with balsamic dressing is such a blast of fresh and crisp pepperiness as to transport you into a summer afternoon. The desserts included a very good slice of treacle pie that was deeply, smokily sweet and generous.
The Barking Dog deserves to succeed and no better place has been devised for the BT9 families and bright young things than this in a long time.
Crayfish cocktail £7.25
Scallops and black pudding £8.50
Sirloin steak £17.95
Smoked haddock £12.00
Rocket salad £3.00
Chicken & chips x 3 £14.85
Sticky toffee pud £4.95
Treacle pie £4.95
Pinot d'Alsace £18.50
Sprite X 5 £6.50