Joris Minne: Rhubarb
Rhubarb adds a much-needed splash of colour to Belfast's Castlereagh Road with wonderful dishes and a neighbourly welcome
The post-industrial landscape surrounding parts of the Castlereagh Road is at its bleakest between Channing Street and Orby Link where a huge Tesco store has been erected on the site of a former factory.
But the stark view of the supermarket's car park from across the street in Rhubarb will not be a concern for anyone trying to decide what to have from the menu. They'll have enough on their hands without having to work up a depression looking out the window.
And the decision-making is not helped at dinner time by an additional blackboard of specials which runs to six or seven more starters, mains and desserts.
Rhubarb, the neighbourhood restaurant which never seems to sleep (breakfast, lunch and dinner), sneaked into operation about seven months ago when Norman Green from the other Rhubarb started the second operation. The original Rhubarb is an excellent city centre café restaurant tucked down in Little Victoria Street, a door down from Ginger (the fascinating Belfast Reptile Shop separates the two). Soon after setting up, the second Rhubarb came into the hands of chef Les Quiery and there is now no connection between the two.
Yet the original Rhubarb DNA is evident. The branding is the same, the cosy neighbourhood informality mixes well with the quality of service and the modest but comfortable, dining room which hugs the open plan kitchen. They are both very alike.
A table for four on a Saturday night was not the easiest to secure. The place is busy and popular and if you think the bleakness outside tells a story of urban abandonment and decay you would be very wrong. A neighbourhood restaurant can't survive without neighbours and there are plenty of them packing out the place this weekend night.
Two front of house staff led by Marta Larkin are managing the crowd well. They both have a sense of timing, and enough charm mixed with deference and authority to keep people happy while they wait for the kitchen to work through the orders.
The BYO policy helps explain the crowds, but it quickly becomes apparent that the menu is not a sop to what the market wants. It is full of testing challenges and appetising specials, a testament to the risks both the restaurant and the diners are willing to take. For instance, there's braised beef cheek rigatoni with sundried tomatoes, wild mushrooms and summer vegetables, or local beetroot and goat's cheese risotto with purple sprouting broccoli; there is paella made with orzo pasta and curried cauliflower soup with couscous and crispy chicken wanton. Black pudding features here and there making an appearance in the potted pork starter and in a side dish of cauliflower cheese.
The surf and turf is boeuf bourguignon with scallops and fails as an arranged marriage more because of incompatibility rather than either the surf or turf's lack of commitment. Both components were top class, the scallops among the largest ever seen and beautifully seared, the bourguignon made from super tender, braised beef and good red wine sauce. But surf and turf has always been a problem marriage, no matter who's in it. The advisor said if anyone wanted to compose a successful surf and turf they'd have to go for something like fillet of beef and monkfish tail or langoustines and chicken but even that was pushing it.
The advisor's Dover sole with brown shrimp on the other hand was heavenly. She made the point that the purity of the Dover sole, especially when prepared so carefully as in Rhubarb, should never be accompanied by anything other than shrimp.
Salted squid, linguini with crab, burger with triple fried chips were all fresh, good quality and well cooked. The paella made with orzo could be viewed as cheating – none of that laborious continuous stirring and adjusting the stock level – yet the mussels, bits of chorizo and prawns within helped shore it up as a decent dish.
An apple and rhubarb crumble was another fine classic served up with ice cream. The crumble was as brittle and broken as a scree slope and the fruit inside, a tangy mix of bite-size pink and white morsels with not too much sugar to take away that spine-shuddering, acid-drop sensation.
Rhubarb in Castlereagh is a winner. The kitchen antics are visible to everyone and entertaining. The service is impeccable, efficient, friendly and as fast as the kitchen can keep up with them.
For anyone looking for a hidden secret with which to impress their friends, this is the place.
Linguini x 2 £13.90
Potted pork £5.75
Dover sole £20.50
Cauliflower side £3.95
Desserts x 2 £9.95
Sparkling water large £2.60
Corkage x 3 bottles £7.50
223 Castlereagh Road, Belfast. BT5 5FH
Tel: 028 9045 4287