Restaurant review: Howard Street, Belfast
56 Howard Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 8362
In a recent charity auction for NI Muscular Dystrophy, local businessman Nick Acheson was the winning bidder of a unique prize: to be our restaurant reviewer for one evening.
Belfast's love affair with food is a bit like the Italian renaissance when painters focused on the plus-size human body to express a sense of sensuality and beauty. Similarly, we are particularly keen on informal restaurants that serve excellent food in larger quantities than you might find in other cities. Volume and flavour are the keys to success. So it's no wonder that Howard Street Restaurant continues to do so well.
A couple of years ago the Belfast Telegraph reviewed it after Joris Minne had eaten there eight times. The one key message clearly coming forward was: consistency. According to Joris, Marty Murphy's dishes are bulletproof. Reliable, made with high-quality ingredients and always beautifully cooked.
This is my first time and while I'm not a proper reviewer, I have a secret weapon: Jasper Castell, part owner of the award-winning Bangor Boat House restaurant.
For those of you who haven't yet been, Howard Street is a bare-bricked, stripped-wood and high-ceilinged kind of place. These features don't help with the acoustics. Some dampening or sound panels may need to be installed because anyone over 45 will struggle to hear themselves or their pals across the tables in the evenings. This is an invisible yet critical issue for restaurants.
Restaurant owners should pay attention to these factors, particularly as they won't really be aware of them unless they too spend an evening at a table.
Only this and the paper napkins dampened what was otherwise a revelatory night of excellent food and service.
Kicking off with cocktails at the bar (there is a proper bar with stools and this provides a very relaxing and pleasurable environment if you happen to turn up early) you get a full feel for the historic nature of the place as well as the upbeat mood. Jasper and I were there an hour before the reservation so made full use of the facility!
A good cocktail list was well executed and we were ready, if you know what I mean, for Joris when he showed up at the appointed time. Those Professor's Tipples and Devil's Slides and El Dorados are a great appetiser!
Service is very polished here. Friendly, youthful and clearly knowledgeable, the servers dart around the restaurant gracefully and with a smile. It takes no time to grab their attention. The dinner menu is a marvel of choice with hefty hints of Asian influence. Tom yum soup, Thai curries and things with lots of chilli and ginger feature large.
Jasper dives into a prawn tom yum soup and is happy with the warmth and painless spice: it could have been spiced up a bit more but if it's aimed at the masses then chef probably got his market right. The scallops in front of me appear with black pudding croquettes, an intriguing but happy mix. Joris's squid looks good and he confirms this.
He says he's normally adventurous but never in Howard Street, where he eats the same main course every time: the pale smoked haddock with sautéed potatoes, Thai red curry and green beans. He says he loves that clash between eastern exotica and Irish convention. I think he's being a bit picky by asking if the curry can come separately. He says it heightens the tension between the two.
My pigeon is heavily seasoned in a good way. I love the wintry feel of it, the gaminess and the deep flavours and soft textures. Jasper mentions his halibut is very slightly overcooked but loves the heartiness of the dish.
I'm a keen amateur cook and appreciate good cooking. Howard Street is a quality restaurant that just needs to tighten up on a couple of features, namely the acoustics and those paper napkins. There's a nearly-linen version of napkins that Niall and Marty should take a look at.
I loved it and look forward to getting back there soon.
Krombacher x 2 £9.00
Le Grappin white wine £20.00
Tom yum soup £6.75
Bread & butter pudding x 2 £13.00
Chocolate cake £6.50
Double espresso £2.50