Joris Minne: Fountain Bar & Restaurant
New-wave bistros may think they know it all, but this traditional Belfast restaurant proves that good taste never goes out of fashion.
Some weeks back we took a look at Greyabbey’s No.14 restaurant and its proud allegiance to chintz and Country Life-style rustic convention.
I hailed its existence as a kind of bridge-head for a resistance movement opposed to the advancing horrors of faux-industrial-dereliction bistros with mismatched furniture and other urban trends.
This resistance movement has many adherents. The Dirty Duck in Holywood, the Crown Bar in Belfast, Billy Andy’s near Larne and the Brewer’s House in Donaghadee, are all proud to be old-fashioned and to play up their heritages.
Apart from the Crown Bar which is eternally preserved as it was for a moment in its early history, the rest of these restaurants and pubs rely on tradition and the conventions of comfort and cosiness. These conventions were first laid down shortly after World War II and dictated that a pub or restaurant should have nice sofas, curtains and crockery. If the owner could stretch to a grandfather clock ticking slowly in a corner to remind us of a peaceful time without anxieties, then all the better.
The Fountain Bar in the heart of Belfast doesn’t stretch to the grandfather clock but it is an old fashioned place. It successfully marries dark oak beams, a bit of mock Tudor upholstery on the booths and a wide screen TV on which to watch the football. From the outside, it’s clearly not a Tudor building but, what the hell, if the theme kind of works, then go for it. As a result, The Fountain has become a strong and recognisable landmark and is now acknowledged as the focal point in the busy street which includes cafes, the new-ish VooDoo club bar, the newsagents, La Boca and other shops.
Naturally, the restaurant is upstairs. It is even cosier than the bar with its low ceiling and decorative wine barrels and nets. It’s much the same as you would have expected it to be in the ‘70s. It’s established, it has presence and it’s not pretentious. It is typically Belfast. Most importantly, though, it has a good kitchen.
A recent visit on a Friday revealed just how popular the resistance movement is. People who want baked gammon, roast beef or half roasted chicken, just like you used to get 50 years ago, will come here quite openly laughing at any talk of tapenade, quinoa or goat meat, but while these die-hards are well catered for, the eagle-eyed and more youthful diner will also have noticed enticing and more modern (whisper it) dishes including a very good lunch special of fresh baked mackerel with horseradish mash and caramelised carrots.
While it’s always favourable to go with fish on the bone, mackerel is so powerful anyway that when it comes in fillets — in the case of the Fountain’s offer, a generous threesome of sizeable fillets were piled up on an attractive, creamy bed of mash — it rarely disappoints. This dish was top class. The fish was cooked just in the right time, the texture of the meat and the softness of the skin made a wonderfully salty and tangy mouthful which played well against the more gentle mash. The mild spiciness of the horseradish came through very pleasantly to complete a rich series of flavours and tastes.
A starter of chowder was a bit too heavy with cream and density, although some will prefer it that way. A generous presence of whitefish and prawns and a little potato made for a very filling dish and when accompanied by a slab of fresh, warm soda bread, was plenty for even the greediest muncher.
There are lots of other indicators on the menu which give us some idea of the enthusiasm with which the kitchen is run. There are nachos with chilli beef melt, jalapenos and sour cream, sticky bang bang chicken, paninis, salads (including Caribbean prawn and tempura chicken) and other offers from a more recent era. The fish, meat, dairy, produce and breads are bought in daily from local people. The bread is from the Windsor bakery around the corner and the fish from Keenan’s.
Run by the elegantly assertive and calm general manager Zoe Cosh for the last 13 years, the Fountain has established itself as a pukka neighbourhood bar and restaurant. She shows a clear enthusiasm and passion for the Fountain and this is further expressed through the bar staff and servers. The impression therefore for the first time visitor is distinctly warm and hospitable.
What many will find most attractive is that the Fountain is first and foremost a pub. Its restaurant is good and you will enjoy solid, unpretentious lunches and dinners before moving on to a few pints. It’s also a very comfortable stop-over in case of shopping overload.
If you ever wondered why we should resist the invasion of the new wave bistros, may be the answer is in The Fountain.
Apple crumble £3.95
Bottle Coors Lite £3.45
16-20 Fountain Street, Belfast BT1 5ED.
Tel: 028 9032 4769.