Restaurant Review: Graze, Belfast
8 Library Court, Newtownards Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9065 8658
This new Ballyhackamore restaurant puffs itself up on its website, but does their menu stand up to the flowery boasts?
If you like to check restaurants out on the internet before you book, the first thing you'll notice when you get to Graze is that it is nothing like the picture painted by its website. Thank god for that, says the advisor, because it's all a bit too Gwyneth Paltrow: "... food that is honest, straightforward and pays homage to the bounty which can be found in a region we are so privileged to call home ..." and so on.
Down with this sort of thing, I say, because eating out is meant to be enjoyed in a collective, nourishing and joyful embrace. It should not be an individual act of worship or a charitable donation aimed at helping our starving farmers.
Farmers produce food, chefs cook it and restaurateurs present it on a nice plate at a comfortable table with decent lighting and no draughts. And we pay for it. It's a simple sequence. And Graze does it very well.
Nevertheless, Graze's devotion to local produce, working with neighbourhood suppliers and watching its carbon footprint is admirable. Forget my cynicism. The fact remains that whatever noble cause is shoring up its clean-cut identity, Graze is a good restaurant and the food it serves is way above average.
Business partners chef John Moffatt and manager Neil Johnston have not fallen into the trap of building a monument to themselves.
They have gauged what the customer wants and are providing just that: the comfort of the furniture, the crisp yet nostalgic décor reawakening memories of spotless old butcher shops and that food, some of which is exceptionally good, all combine to produce the kind of restaurant you'd like to get into the habit of returning to.
Everything matches the expectation created by the look of the place (if not the website!).
For a start, Neil Johnston is a master host – pleasant, heart of Ulster, big and self-effacing, his approach is all about getting the customer settled and happy. Very knowledgeable eaters who have become frequent Graze visitors mention Neil's attentive yet discreet service repeatedly. His floor staff are well directed as they too apply the Johnston principles of hospitality: there for you, but not in your face.
He's also good on his wines and locally brewed beers and is keen to talk up that stuff his website gushes on about except that when Neil does it standing in front of you, it's much more convincing.
We are here on an early Sunday evening and the place is bunged. There's a happy buzz and the servers are in full swing handling the orders with a smile and running to and fro like shuttlecocks.
Starters of garlic and chilli prawns are served in shallow clay dishes filled with juicy big commas of langoustine tails in a warming, fiery sauce. The prawns are not overcooked, firm and full of flavour but that sauce is addictive and the four of us ask for more bread to dip and sponge.
Scallops and cassoulet are simple, comforting and reassuringly rich, the beans' heavy presence playing great second fiddle to the three big squidgy pillows.
Sundays at Graze mean additional roasts to the regular menu but the pork (with crackling) has long gone, as has the seabream. But an excellent hake filet, a light but populated chowder and a duck magret, cooked pink and served with rainbow carrots and very entertaining sweet potatoes in a crispy, scotch egg-like coating, are memorable. The Skeganore duck breast was pink, velvety tender and deeply meaty and fowly, with crispy, salty fat and skin adding spark and fun.
Finishing with fireworks was a banana bread and butter pudding which we talked about in a manner I slowly realised was the language of, er, Gwyneth Paltrow, for the rest of the evening. Now I understand why the website is the way it is. All this gentle and poetic heartiness and attentiveness is infectious.
Graze is a new kid on the block in the area of Belfast which UTV's Alison Fleming refers to as Ballysnackamore; young and new it may be but it has big enough shoulders to force its way to the top of the list of quality neighbourhood restaurants. No wonder house prices are going up around the east.
Prawn, garlic & chilli x 2 £12
Crab starter £6
Chocolate fondant £5
Banana pudding £5
Bottle riesling £30