Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Ginger Bistro
Ginger Bistro. 7-8 Hope Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 4421
You can measure restaurants in dog years. Anywhere over 10 years old is very old, but few such places exist. They've either long since been put down, re-opened as something else, or have new owners.
Michael Deane's and Niall McKenna's empires may have been around for 10 years and more, but they rejuvenate, alter and transform their places regularly so everybody gets to go to a relatively new restaurant.
Simon and Abby McCance have owned Ginger Bistro since the ancient Egyptians ruled Ireland. Anyone revisiting Ginger after a very long absence will see no difference. Except, of course, for those who know about these things (step forward the advisor), the difference is significant, if imperceptibly, subtle.
Ginger Bistro, tucked out of the way in Belfast's second-smallest street and next door to the Belfast Reptile Shop, has seen fads and trends come and go.
It has survived interior design earthquakes which have reformatted restaurants from comfortable dining rooms to punky bomb shelters; it has waved goodbye to disappearing neighbours and witnessed nearby demolition projects; it has watched the emergence of the Cathedral Quarter, Queen's Quarter and Titanic Quarter, the demise of the Golden Mile and the gentle tumble into dereliction of Great Victoria Street. And, despite all this, it remains defiantly one of the best restaurants in the city.
Like some kind of mini St Paul's Cathedral in 1944, Ginger has survived the equivalent of aerial bomb attacks by disastrous planning policies, broken investment promises and general abandonment to remain rock-solid on its feet and do what it has always done: serve well-cooked food made from classy ingredients in a comfortably woody, rustic and homey environment at a roughly affordable price.
Its survival is down to quality and also some very subtle changes, which don't cost the owners much, but which keep the flames of excitement stoked up.
Menu updates, new dishes rubbing shoulders with old McCance signatures, including his peculiar salted squid and fish dishes, keep them coming back for more. Also, the staff are among the best of Belfast's front-of-house charmers: experienced and expert.
The brother and I had lunch there last week. I was about to go to a restaurant I knew was not great, because the pressure has been on recently to write something grossly entertaining about somewhere awful.
But on this day I felt life was too short and suggested to Paddy we go and celebrate our collective appetite by eating somewhere decent.
Ginger delivered a seriously exciting starter which featured a remoulade of celeriac as support actor. I can't remember what the key attraction was, but the remoulade was better than any I've had in Ireland.
Mixed in was some crab, chopped chives and other heat, just enough to turn the remoulade from a summery salad to a wintery tongue warmer. I remember now: it was a sautéed scallop with a block of crispy pork belly, sweet onion purée, cucumber and apple salsa and black pudding crumb.
This is the kind of starter that settles every score; no matter what mood you're in, this will make things all right.
On the back of this came a dish of grilled pale smoked haddock with asparagus, pea and leek risotto and roast cherry tomatoes. Simon McCance is a master with fish and the haddock was a glistening, slippery set of interlocking pearly kernels whose delicate salty flavours were well-matched to the risotto.
I take issue with asparagus at this time of the year, when perhaps some young local leeks would do the job even better, but Simon's always been a bit of a rebel.
The brother was taken by his Ewings smoked salmon and prawn and crayfish cocktail. He really wanted the squid, but I have this thing about Simon's way of doing it. He says he sells tonnes of squid, so I can go and throw a bucket of slack at myself.
Ginger is not just a great survivor. It's a Belfast institution. The wine list is clever and not expensive and the food is good.
All it needs now is some area regeneration.
Scallop starter £9.00
Smoked salmon starter £7.50
Smoked haddock (x2) £24.00
Pinot grigio (x2 glasses) £9.50