Barking Dog restaurant in Belfast has plenty of bite
This trendy eatery has earned its stripes with consistently excellent food and service, especially a truly spectacular steak tartare
The inner burbs of Belfast: the Queen's Quarter, Ballyhackamore, Strandtown, Ormeau Road and a few other areas within a drop kick of Donegall Square, have now become a culinary halo surrounding the city centre. The choice of reliable restaurants in the halo zone is broader than ever. They are also places to be seen, which makes them even more fun.
One of the first of these New Wavers, Barking Dog, has earned its stripes over the last five years by being consistent on all fronts. The service is excellent, the food is always comforting and often exciting and the environment created by bare brick walls, wooden floors and furniture, crockery and cutlery from your old auntie's house remains as enticing as it was when it first opened. And it's still a place in which to be seen.
The menu always changes a bit and while some early favourites have made comebacks and then disappeared again (bring back the Barking Dog Scotch egg, please) some signatures have become as much a part of the restaurant as the Astroturf out the front. The shin burger, something unique to Belfast, is still there, as is the Kilkeel crab on toast, or in other variants.
And perhaps this is the secret of a successful restaurant: the provision of old favourites while egging on the diner to try some other newer stuff. Like the steak tartare with toasted soldiers. Hardly revolutionary, perhaps, but daring all the same after the last few years of health and safety alerts surrounding meat, and in particular, raw meat.
Barking Dog's steak tartare is a wonder. At a tenner you expect something spectacular and it is. What appears to be a quarter pound raw burger with a tiny egg yolk in the middle is something much more sophisticated altogether. In the lean ground meat, which is marinated in vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, are finely chopped shallots, chives and capers.
Michael O'Connor, in charge of this kitchen and others in the Sam Spain portfolio, has chosen to drop a tiny quail's egg yolk in the centre of the perfectly round offering. It's like a little golden hubcap. "I wanted to put a full chicken's egg there but felt it looked a bit ignorant," says the aesthetically sensitive O'Connor. "Raw meat's one thing, but a big raw egg might be pushing it. A wee quail's egg wouldn't scare anybody."
He's right and the starter is super classy, something you'd pay thirty quid for in parts of London.
There are tapas-sized starters as well as the bigger jobs. These include crevettes and aioli. The crevettes have been part peeled which is a huge contribution to your comfort and enjoyment, particularly if you're just back from the nail salon.
The black pudding fritters with apple sauce did it for me. The Kilkeel crab, chive, crème fraiche and toasted sourdough was a bit lost. Less crème and more crab would fix that.
The adviser returned to the staple beef shin burger – she's had that a dozen times in there – and judged it as good as ever. The caramelised onion and cheddar offer sweetness and dryness to perk up the flakey burger's meatiness.
A squid-ink linguine with prawns and chilli was big and dark. It's not the sauce that's made with squid ink, just the pasta itself, which looks like a plate of black rubber bootlaces but is perfectly cooked. The throaty squid ink flavour was a bit buried but the whole dish was wholesome al the same.
A classic roast Herefordshire sirloin with carrots, green beans and roasties was crowned by a vast Yorkshire pudding and provided the first taste of winter this year.
Another Barking Dog regular is the salt and pepper scampi with decent tartare sauce and fries.
The scampi are clad in a military-grade peppered breadcrumb mix which makes them addictive and just the right side of painful. Hot and spicy but not so bad the 12-year-old couldn't enjoy them and wish out loud for more.
The place is perfect on Sunday afternoons if you like a bit of live music. Last Sunday, Jackie Rainey sang and accompanied herself on the guitar. I don't normally like live music while I eat – as a music lover there's a moral obligation to listen and engage as an audience; this can be distracting and irritating – but she is exceptional. So is the apple tarte tatin.
6 tapas @ £8 for 3 £16
Steak tartare £10
Kilkeel crab salad £7
Scampi x 2 £26
Roast sirloin £15
Shin burger £13.50
Tarte tatin £6
Sticky toffee pud £5.50