Joris Minne: Cutters Wharf River Grill
A Cut Below
This restaurant offers superb service and a splendid location ... shame about the food
There are restaurants which rely on many attributes for their success. Some restaurateurs subscribe to the theory that of these attributes which include food, service and environment, to get all three right at the same time is pretty much impossible. If you can get two out of three right you’re doing really well and even to achieve one out of three is still good going.
This is sadly the case at Cutters Wharf, one of the most iconic of Belfast’s bar restaurants. The two attributes they get right at the Lagan’s most pleasant riverside bar are the service and the environment.
Staff at Cutters are among the best you’ll find in Northern Ireland. They embody that twinkly-eyed, jokey-jaggy charm that we have come to expect of Belfast and they are very good at the hospitality thing. I watched a small team of three at lunch-time earlier this month managing tables of older people, tables of young post-grads out with their parents and tourists with faltering English and they flexed and smiled and encouraged and helped and the mood in the room from one end to the other was palpably happy.
Less impressive but hard to get completely wrong is the built environment. Cutters always looked like a mis-placed railway station, a misfit by the river with small windows to limit the views, almost as if to turn its back on the Lagan. While the windows upstairs offer broader vistas, it is the most unfortunate-looking building, a mock Victorian thing in red brick where instead, a glass-fronted two storey structure would have allowed complete visual access to the river (and the ordinary-looking Annadale housing estate on the other side) and offered something decent to look at for those of us who use the Annadale Embankment road.
God only knows what the planners and architects reckon is fitting and suitable for this part of residential south Belfast. Inside, the wooden floor, leather sofas, tables and leopard-print upholstered chairs and high stools work rather well with the bare stone walls. If the windows are small they are largely compensated for by ample decking outside which allows more furniture to be placed outside and accommodate plenty of smokers and other rakers. On a warm evening there are few places as blissful with a pint in your hand.
The third attribute, the food, however, falls flat on its face in this lunchtime downstairs bar. It really is quite awful. I understand that upstairs which opens in the evenings deserves a separate review.
Perhaps the chef is relying on the distraction of drink (and the gently flowing, mildly hypnotic Lagan outside) — this is a pub after all and the bar is the central altar of activity in the place. Nonetheless, Cutters does promote itself as a restaurant, or a grill at any rate.
The bar menu which is your only option at lunch-time is a conventional list of classic pub simplicity including soup of the day (asparagus on this occasion), potato wedges with sweet chilli and sour cream dips, “old school” prawn cocktail with fresh wheaten bread you get the idea. There are also “Cutters Summer Soft Rolls” with tuna, scallions (called spring onions here) and mayo, baked Limerick ham with cheddar cheese and tomato and so on. For mains there are burgers, pastas, chowder, minute steak, beer battered scampi.
All this is modest but appetising bar menu fayre and exactly what you’d expect and hope for. It’s just that the various bits and pieces we had were not up to scratch at all.
The nachos with jalapeno peppers, sour cream, tomato salsa and cheese were a travesty. The big bowl arrived and looked much worse than a dog’s dinner. Lurking invisibly beneath a big thick blanket of sour cream, the nachos were struggling for air, becoming soggy and mushy in the attempt. The jalapenos were dull and the melted cheese also underneath the cream had congealed into a tasteless, elastic mess.
It’s a shame, because nachos with melted cheese and dips are the pinnacle of white trash cooking which require very little skill. Gourmet Burger Bank on Belmont Road does a nachos with melted cheese and chilli dip which makes much more sense. Cutters Wharf’s approach is just stupid. All that was required was nachos with melted cheese on top and a couple of side ramekins of cream and peppers or chilli sauce. That way, it would have been attractive and practical rather than messy and deeply repulsive to look at.
The scampi which followed was a greasy mound of battered balls so voluminous and soaking in grease as to obscure any hint of prawns within. The chips were suspect — I didn’t like the deep yellow look of them and the Caesar salad with bacon was the best thing there.
However, here again was a display of unthinking presentation. The salad had a hefty sprinkling of Parmesan. Parmesan can have an unfortunate side effect of being malodorous, particularly when placed in close proximity to incompatible partners such as deep fried things. If placed alongside these the whole thing becomes inedible.
Dish of the day was lightly smoked salmon steak with beetroot, goat’s cheese and boiled new potatoes. This was bland and, while edible, provided no entertainment or smiles.
Cutters Wharf has exemplary floor and bar staff and they are badly let down by what’s going on in the kitchen. Somebody needs a bit of retraining in there. Until this happens, stick to the bar, enjoy the view, and if you get hungry go over the river to the Ormeau Road’s Errigle instead.
Pint Coors: £3.15
White wine spritzer: £5.90