Joris Minne: Prezzo!
With such an impressive and varied bistro scene already established in Belfast, can this chain eatery adequately hold its own?
There's a lot to be said for the efficiency of European city centre mid-range restaurants geared up for feeding shoppers, office workers and museum visitors. Pick any city between Amsterdam and Albufeira and in their centres you will find clean, formica-clad, brightly lit, food businesses offering a small range of dishes of the day at reasonable prices. They generally don't have much character or charm. They are there to service, not to entertain.
Belfast and Northern Ireland are different. For one thing, we are not between Amsterdam and Albufeira. Nor are we so urban as to have much truck with charmless restaurants. For us, even a quick bite to eat must be accompanied by some craic.
For instance, an 18-minute lunch in Deanes Seafood Bar last week turned into a laugh. Deanes does a £6.50 lunch and I said to the nice woman that there was no way she could get it out on the table in time for me to be out of there in 20 minutes and if she could, it would be too small to technically define as lunch.
Of course I was wrong on both counts. A wooden platter with mounds of smoked salmon, two bricks of crumbling, cakey wheaten bread, a rocket salad and a bowl of chips arrived within a couple of minutes.
The little meal hit the spot in so many ways: the quality of every simple ingredient was inarguable and, frankly, it was plenty for lunch. I even had time for a quick coffee. A similar thing happened with a bowl of chowder in James Street South Bar & Grill the previous month. I hate rushing a meal but sometimes time is limited and a few minutes in which to calm down, take it easy, refresh the soul and replenish the belly is all it takes to get back on our feet and get going again. If you're zen-smart you can turn these moments into micro-holidays.
By and large, we do have more time than that and we are blessed with a portfolio of restaurants which are very well managed and in which you can expect some of the best food in Europe. It's not Michelin-starred fine dining – it's better than that. The Belfast Bistro style has much broader appeal and as a result more people like to visit them as they are not intimidated or put off by misplaced poshery.
In fact, you can rely on the commitment to you the diner that most of these places are doing their damned best to earn the money they're charging. As a result, the try-hard-all-the-time approach pays off and we, the punters, are happy. So it must be daunting for the big UK chains like Wagamama, PizzaExpress and now Prezzo to enter into the Belfast fray with their offer of corporately-approved chow some of it sourced from a central location offering little, if any, leeway for local influences and cultural habits.
Fair enough, you might say, noodles, pizzas and pasta dishes are hardly the market sectors to encroach on the existing indigenous core of restaurants in Belfast and Northern Ireland. But the fact is, that the prices they charge means they are being compared like for like. Therefore, if you go to top spots like Shu, CoCo, Hadskis, Mourne Seafood Bar and the others, you have a very good idea of what quality your money buys.
A recent outing to Prezzo in Victoria Square proved the point that those chains simply don't pay any attention to the local environment in which they operate. The Cosmos, Prezzos, TGI Fridays target the footfall generated by a shopping centre location and focus all their attention on this segment. They don't need to bother with Danny Miller's changing menu or Simon McCance's fresh fish of the day. In short, they do not need to become a destination restaurant with a reputation because what they do has already passed the acceptability test in a corporate head office far, far away.
Which means that the crab cakes taste of something only vaguely fishy. They are crispy and golden and look appetising and there is no sign of added potato packing. I close my eyes and imagine that they are tuna or salmon as they could pass equally well for either.
The spaghetti carbonara, on the other hand, is generously dotted with lardons and crispy bits of fried pancetta. It is cooked just right and while the cheesy sauce inexplicably offers hints of somebody's bad breath it is actually good.
The panettone bread and butter pudding is a big disappointment. A very small damp piece of panettone (or is that barmbrack?) sits forlornly on a plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. There is no evidence of it having been near any custard or baked in an oven. At £5.20 this is poor.
The restaurant itself is beautiful with cream leather-backed booths, warm wooden floors and a deep blue, back-lit bar. The front of house staff are friendly and efficient in that Amsterdam to Albufeira way, but I wonder how Prezzo would fare if it opened somewhere outside a shopping mall.
Crab cakes £5.75
Spaghetti carbonara £9.25
Panettone pudding £5.20
50cl sparkling water £2.45
1 Victoria Square, Belfast BT1 4QB.
Tel: 028 9031 1641