Restaurant review: Latitude, Stranmillis Road, Belfast
The three pillars of a successful restaurant — food, service and environment — are all equal in importance.
Some hardcore foodies tell you that the rickety chair, draughty room and poor lighting are tolerable when the food and service are excellent. Others will argue that a comfortable, well-lit room and a good server can outgun mediocre food any day.
But here’s the news: all three are equal in importance and the slightest diminution of quality in any one factor will result in an overall fail. This is why good restaurants are good.
A new restaurant in Stranmillis, Latitude, gets it almost right. The quality of food and service is striking. I had the best grilled lamb chop (it said chop on the menu, but it was actually a chump steak) here since Muddler’s Club. But Latitude’s interior is eye-popping and troubling.
There are no draughts and it’s warm, but I cannot live with the zebra-print wallpaper, the clumsy spiritual grace of a very large woman’s face taken straight from the pages of a 1970s jewellery catalogue, or the blue, back-lit bar.
Another issue here is the menu. Ahmit “Ricky” Rekhi, the chef patron, is clearly talented and knows a thing or two about Middle Eastern cooking. The generous chump steak, which had been treated in some kind of mildly spiced marinade, was outstanding, succulent and memorable. An accompanying side of creamed spinach was just as exciting and full of tangy versus soft flavours.
Server Sebastian had been very specific as to how I wanted it cooked. I had said charred and pink. That’s exactly what arrived, tender, salty, sweet, just what you might come across in a much more expensive Lebanese restaurant. Accompanied by some new, curried potatoes, the dish, at £13.50, is remarkable value for money.
The two teens dipped into the danger zone that these restaurant menus alert you to. What I mean is: when I see a large, A3, laminated menu, which features Caesar salad, calamari, seafood linguine, chicken tikka chilli masala and sirloin steaks, I immediately brace myself for non-descript, conveyor belt food which vaguely matches the expectation we have of what the dishes should look like.
If the restaurateur cannot make up his, or her, mind what kind of food they’re putting on the table, then it’s bound to be a mishmash.
Restaurants which have menus like these think they are taking the safe option: take a look at the most popular dishes in Northern Ireland, lump them all together and you can’t miss.
Wrong. With the exception of Latitude, these places don’t usually deliver quality on any of them.
The chicken tikka masala, however, was as powerful, deep and fresh as the Khyber Tandoori up in Carryduff. Good flavours with plenty of tender chunks of chicken and quality basmati rice with saffron, it withstood the closest scrutiny from Teen 2 who is an expert.
Teen One is a lover of the bland and her chicken supreme with cream sauce and mashed potato passed her own mysterious tests and examinations. I don’t know what this says for Ricky’s cooking, but it must have been very bland to secure her approval.
An apple and berry crumble, with the lightest, crumbliest crumbs on top, was excellent — although ruined by a custard which was crazily salty.
I’m not entirely sure if Sebastian understood my quiet comment about it when I paid the bill, but let’s hope Ricky tastes it the next time before he puts it out.
Latitude is a good restaurant which could be brilliant. Strip out the zebra print and that awful painting, change the blue lighting behind the bar and go all-out Middle Eastern instead of this pussy-footing about with Western, or Far Eastern, dishes.
Belfast would love a Lebanese culinary experience where lamb and chicken are marinated and spiced, where vegetables, flat breads, things made from olives and chickpeas and gorgeous wines all join to become a party.
Byblos in Brunswick Square is the best we’ve got, but here’s a chef who can upgrade the experience to fine dining, but appears to have chosen not to.
Chicken supreme £12.50
Chicken tikka masala £9.95
Skinny fries £2.90
Cokes (x2) £ 5.00
Sparkling water (x2) £4.00
Belfast Telegraph Digital