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Restaurant review: Cuffs a proper place that deserves to prosper

Cuffs Bar & Grill, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast. Tel: 028 9075 5822

By Joris Minne

Crumlin Road Gaol has been the surprise tourism hit for Belfast, with visitors comparing it to Alcatraz in San Francisco and Robin Island in South Africa. It has everything: a colourful recent political past, a tunnel linking it to the courthouse and a hangman's noose and trapdoor. What more do you need to make this place work for tourists? A restaurant in the dungeons, naturally.

Cuffs, the new restaurant, sits in the bowels of the gaol. I'm not sure if these are actually dungeons, but they are distinctly crypt-like. In an old Victorian gaol, this arched and pillared underground room appears to have had a decidedly gloomy history, with armoured doors and slots for guards to peer in and out.

But, thanks to the decorators, it's not gloomy at all. If anything, Cuffs is romantic and cosy, furnished with plush green and gold velvet upholstered chairs and private booths in the middle of the low ceilinged room. If this were anywhere else, you'd be comparing it to a private members' club. Which, I suppose, in some ways it might once have been.

Cuffs doesn't overdo the joke, however. There are half-a-dozen daily specials including chicken Kiev, confit of duck and stuffed pork loin, but in the main menu you will find a 'long stretch burger'. And that's it. No gruel, gaoler's suppers or rations and no tin plates or plastic cutlery. Because it's a proper restaurant, with a wine list and good service.

One of the day's specials, the peppered beef brisket with pepper sauce, came with triple cooked chips. I couldn't fault it. The meat was tender and tasty, the pepper sauce rich and spicy. I asked for more and was given a pot of the stuff within seconds. It tasted slightly different, which was a welcome sign. A dressed mixed salad was excellent, crunchy, lush and with a tangy vinaigrette.

Lunches like these are not widely available, even though they should be. Cuffs hits it just right. The menu is not going to frighten the natives, and for this reason and the fact that it has that private clubby sense of exclusivity, it really is a good spot for business lunches. Add the fact that you can park for free and you don't have to buy a ticket into the main gaol, and Cuffs becomes an even more attractive proposition.

The thing is, it's far better than just a gimmick for tourists. This is a restaurant which has enough poise and presence, is well enough managed to deserve to be an attraction in its own right.

It has thrown in a great mix of Irish produce, including Tipperary dry goat's cheese salad, Ulster beef, Rockvale chicken wings with Cashel blue cheese dipper, Belfast smoked salmon from Ewings and slow roasted pork belly with parsnips, squash and Armagh apple dressing.

Crumlin Road Gaol is a fantastic visit, by the way. It has been sensitively interpreted and plays a role in bringing together communities in this part of north Belfast which have been ripped asunder in recent decades by sectarianism.

I had a good look around to see what kind of people were in this Tuesday and could tell the table of three ladies was one of women who know a good lunch, and a large table of 10 for a family was where the craic was.

Come quietly, don't give them any trouble and you may find you make a habit of going to gaol.

  • Read Joris Minne's weekly restaurant review in your Saturday Weekend magazine inside the Belfast Telegraph

The bill

Brisket, chips & salad 9.50

Glass red wine 4.50

Espresso 1.80

Total 15.80

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