This relaxed new brasserie may be located in a Belfast hotel, but Knife & Fork isn't remotely blunted by stuffy formality
Back in the early 20th century, hotel restaurants put the posh into nosh and people made a huge deal of eating out in them. You got dressed up, you expected formality and silver service was de rigueur. If you were from the lower orders, you absolutely wet yourself with a mixture of fear and anticipation.
A diner needed to know how to use a fish knife, which glass to put the water in and how to conduct themselves with hushed dignity on the one hand and comfortable confidence on the other. It was profoundly divided by class. Posh people didn't work in restaurants, they only ate in them.
Nowadays, the children of top civil servants and politicians, business people and professional classes, happily traipse into the excellent catering classes at Northern Regional College, SERC and Belfast Met to be trained in the arts of serving, cooking and managing food and staff in restaurants.
Today, eating out is a bit like going to a concert; it has a showbiz element, it's fun and relaxed and it can be very trendy if you know what you're doing. And those who know their escabeches from their sushi will stay away from hotel restaurants.
The reason for this is that many hotel restaurants, especially those out in the country, still operate in the long shadow cast by the old conventions of formality and subjugation. Few of us, apart from the pompous, the stupid or the plain arsey, can be bothered with silver service or bowing waiters pouring wine with one hand behind their back.
Times are changing and some good hotels have gone with the flow. The Europa, for instance, has a bustling bistro on the ground floor (it serves magnificent breakfasts with locally sourced everything) and the servers are friendly and quick. The Malmaison restaurant was excellent at the last visit, as was the Culloden's Mitre.
The Macklin family, which owns and runs the Malone Lodge hotel in south Belfast, has also seen the light and put their money where their mouths are and created an entirely new brasserie called the Knife & Fork. It may be on the ground floor of the hotel but it has its own front door.
The Knife & Fork has the feel of a small Brasserie Bofinger (in Paris) with lots of mirrors, a good bit of brass and yards of banquette seating. Its kitchen faces the restaurant full-on so you can see and be seen by the cooks within. Last Saturday night it was packed and we were given a corner table by the fire escape. My misplacement syndrome kicked in and I got fidgety. When a table at the banquette came free a few minutes later I asked and was immediately re-seated.
It's little things like that which cut a difference. Not being made to feel like a complete tube because of whimsy. And this seam of hospitality was evident the rest of the evening.
The menu is far more enticing than expected: there are hot dogs and lamb burgers, ribs and wings, and there are good cuts of beef.
These included the uncommon feather-blade (slow cooked), rib eye, sirloin and fillet as well as pork, fish and fowl.
Three of us had chicken wings, squid and potted prawns. Wings were plentiful and sizzled in piri piri, slow cooked and tasty. A very good blue cheese dipping sauce was on a par with any quality American diner and the delivery method of two sticks of celery didn't stretch far enough – I could have sat all night with it. The accompanying salad was also surprisingly well thought out and dressed.
The advisor's potted prawns and the crumbling sweet wheaten transported her momentarily back to an imagined existence on a Mayo beach. The squid was more workaday but sound. And this is an interesting point: Knife & Fork does bistro food better than many who have a reputation for being good. The advisor's rib-eye for instance was easily on a par with Paul Rankin's chargrilled, dry-aged cut which used to feature in Cayenne.
Ribs were sweet, salty, tender and flaking off the bone – no need for the accompanying bbq sauce. Scampi came in a little bucket, all fat shrimp tails in light crispy batter, the firm meat within slipping out of the shell. This was quality scampi made with langoustines.
I found little to fault Knife & Fork. The service was impeccable, the meals were appetisingly presented and very well cooked and the sense of well-being which these elements bring were further enhanced by a cheap wine (Perdido Tempranillo) which was far from poor.
Fair play to the Macklin family for taking the restaurant seriously. Here's a discreet place you can visit, impress your friends and family and come out of it smiling after you've paid the bill.
Potted prawns £7
Chips x 2 £5.50
Béarnaise sauce £2
Toffee pud £5
Ice cream £4.80
Perdido red wine £16.50