Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Bert's Jazz Bar
16 Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ. Tel: 028 9023 4888
Live music and food are a tricky combination. It's okay for the laughing mobsters in Goodfellas to be seen in a jazz joint enjoying a chicken dinner and drinking chianti while the Benny Goodman Orchestra wallops out the Chatanooga Choo Choo and a queue of frightened well-wishers file past to pay them respect. But it's an entirely different matter when you apply the concept to Belfast.
For one thing, the food has to be good and, secondly, if there's live music, you have to listen to it: you wouldn't want to appear rude by ignoring it.
Which means it's impossible to eat your dinner comfortably while the band is playing. Also, holding a meaningful conversation while the music plays is a further challenge.
Yet somehow and as if by magic, Bert's Jazz Bar manages to body-swerve the whole bad manners thing and offers up the joyful experience of a jazz club dinner in a fail-safe package in which you can enjoy the music, the food and chat simultaneously.
Bert's has form. It has picked up the Best Service in Ulster a number of times in the annual Restaurants Association of Ireland awards. It is part of the Bill Wolsey portfolio of fun places to go and any time I've popped in, the vibe has always been positive, cheerful and just glitzy enough to create a real sense of occasion.
Last Saturday night and a booth for the adviser and me proved it's consistent, too. Loads of plush velvet, red leather and small table lamps, servers in long aprons and states of alert attentiveness give Bert's a timeless and locationless cache. You could be in post-war Manhattan, or Madrid.
There are cocktails, a simple menu and a straightforward wine list. This wine list, incidentally, is about to get some extra firepower with an additional assortment of reds and white from Concha y Toro. In the absence of these, a rioja from Bujanda did the job of accompanying a chateaubriand very nicely.
I'm currently going through a brandy phase and ordered a sidecar made with Hennessy. Recently, I was a judge assessing 22 cocktails made by 11 Belfast cocktailographers. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the brand so the common theme was that they all had to use Hennessy.
I had no idea you could create so many drinks which would make brandy taste so different each time. This is by way of letting you know the sidecar was on a par with a few I had in the Fairmont Hotel in Los Angeles where Frank Sinatra used to drink them.
The adviser went through the half-dozen starters on the menu (soup, beetroot and tomato salad, moules marinieres, chicken arancini and duck confit) and announced that the crab salad would make a good comparator.
This town's crab salads are a big tourist attraction. Niall McKenna and Michael Deane aren't the only ones to put a good one out: the Barking Dog crab salad is up there, too. So Bert's came under the kind of scrutiny a forensic scientist might expect. We both had it. It passed with flying colours. Unsurprisingly, it's from Ewing's. Beautifully concocted into a large and generous puck, there was a pickled quail's egg and some crispy melba toast made from some kind of rye bread. The few leaves of frisee helped make it very good.
The chateaubriand for two was a risk only because we have been seduced by the charred sensations produced by chef Simon Toye in Meat Locker and the josper grill of David Gilmour in James Street South.
The server in Bert's explained that there was no such grill and suggested instead that pan-fried and served medium rare would be optimum. He was so right.
It had been an age since we'd had meat from a pan rather than a grill. You can overlook the finer more subtle flavours which pan frying can generate as the glamour and robustness of a grill is more obvious and instantly attractive. But this chateaubriand was fabulously well-cooked. Loaded with those beefy flavours, yet subtle in its texture and tenderness, this steak was a tribute to Hannan's Meats and the chef Michael Weber (and a bargain at £49.95).
Bert's provides the night out you've seen in the movies: the music is quality (Scott Flanagan on the piano, ladies and gentlemen), the service deserves the national awards it keeps scooping and the food is the work of people who care.
Crab salad (x2) £15.90
Btl Rioja Bujanda £26.50
Black muscat £7.00