By night it’s a club, but by day the Kitten Bar is clawing out a niche for itself as a hip spot for lunch.
Just in case any reader thinks for one minute that the Belfast Telegraph Weekend magazine restaurant reviews are not utterly independent, let me remind you that no meal has ever been accepted free of charge in exchange for a good review. In fact, no meal has ever been accepted free of charge even when it was awful and should have been offered on the house with compensation in a brown envelope on the side.
A good restaurant will respond to a complaint by removing the offending item from the bill. If it’s all bad then you shouldn’t be faced with a bill at all.
A bad restaurant will acknowledge your complaint with some dismissive chat including a bit of brow-beating (“You don’t like your salmon raw? Well, that’s how we like it here”) or thanking you for your comment, which will be passed on to the chef. And you’ll still receive the full bill.
Most places react well, apologise and move on. The customer feels he or she has been treated decently and will be back.
I say this only because I recently discovered that, according to The Financial Times (thanks, Billy) many French newspaper food reviews are underwritten by the restaurants in question.
This is a serious state of affairs (especially for a country the world considers to be the cradle of culinary culture) and raises all sorts of issues, conflicts of interest, bribes for favours and so on. You can be assured that what you read here is the result of unimpeachable impartiality.
Yet it is with some admitted prejudice that I approached this week’s restaurant. Sharing the site of a nightclub, the Kitten bar and restaurant (warning: say it out loud to the taxi driver and you sound like you’re saying ‘the Kitchen Bar’ with a busted lip. So tell him to take you to the Movie House cinema on Dublin Road and walk round — it’s just at the back of it — otherwise you may end up in the wrong place).
The restaurant is housed in a nondescript modern brick block that incorporates a multitude of urban features — including a multi-storey car park — so its gloomy exterior is the opposite of charming. Nonetheless, once inside, the bare brick walls, dark timber floors, clubby leather booths, banquettes and club chairs create a calm and intimate mood. Despite the ceiling-to-floor windows, it is nocturnal in here. Even though it’s all blue skies and bright sunshine outside, inside the Kitten it’s midnight.
Hanging from the ceiling are powerful speakers, but today they are silent. The only sound comes from the murmurings of a low-volume, wide-screen TV tuned into Sky News. It doesn’t feel like Belfast at all. You could be in a Berlin suburb.
There are two servers on duty — a young man and young woman. He is surly, she is hospitable. We get him. He says something that I can’t hear and he has to repeat himself once or twice — I have tinnitus that sometimes gets more noticeable and today I can barely hear anybody talking to me.
A bit of an impatient snap from your man and I realise this lunch could turn into an unpleasant and combative moment. Thankfully, his colleague steps in with some distinct diplomatic assertion and all is well.
The menu is standard city listing with nothing offensive or weird. If this is just a club trying to turn a few day time bucks then it will soon be betrayed by a poor meal offer.
But the offer is sound. Lunchtime specials at £5 for a burger and chips, veggie option or spaghetti Bolognese (with Parmesan) mean they’re serious about becoming a lunchtime fixture. The rest of the menu — pies, fish dishes, sandwiches, wraps and the like — show a real attempt at carving a little reputation as a habit-forming place to go to eat.
And it’s commendable on all fronts. A spicy lentil soup for £3.95 was remarkable for the depth of flavours and generosity and freshness of accompanying ciabatta and butter.
Anyone looking for sustenance in a minute at lunchtime would do far worse than such a soup. The following beef pie was tolerable with a light and fly-away pastry top. The beef was tender and tasty but the dark gravy sauce was too reduced, too heavy, and possibly too dislocated from the dish — it tasted as if it might have been added to the pre-cooked beef at a later stage in the cooking and that the pastry was also prepared separately.
Better still were the fish pie (topped in mashed potato) and the chicken pie (flaky puff pastry lid on an oven-heated deep dish filled with creamy sauce and chicken pieces that were very good).
The desserts are unremarkable. A cheesecake served in a glass tumbler was over chilled and its flavours beaten out of it as a result so I could not tell (or remember) what flavour it was supposed to be.
The coffee on the other hand was first class. As was the pinot grigio. You can get any amount of varieties of low-cost pinot grigio from the supermarkets and they are mainly bland and a bit fruity. This one, at £14, was among the best I’ve had in Belfast.
The Kitten Bar may sound all wrong whatever way you say it, but as a lunchtime refuge for office workers and ladies who lunch you can’t really get much better than a £5 menu.
Soup and ciabatta £3.40
Smoked salmon with cream cheese £3.95
Chicken wings £3.95
Chicken pie £7.50
Fish pie £7.50
Beef and Guinness pie £7.50
Cheese cake £4.50
Bottle Pinot Grigio £14