Restaurant review: We take a bite out of Sweet Afton
Brunswick Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 8000.
More is never enough. For Mark Beirne, the need to keep opening, fine tuning, scrapping and starting new bars and restaurants is as pressing to him as breathing air is to the rest of us. Having scored some seriously classy hits with the like the The Perch, Miel et Moi and the Albany, Mark recently went back to the former Irene and Nan's bar, refitted and renamed it Shiro then closed it down after a few minutes when he realised it wasn't working.
Now Shiro is dead and Sweet Afton stands in its place, a tribute to old-school American lounge bars with all the expected support services in place. Staff are young and gorgeous and seem to be able to work for days on end without a break.
I met the brother and seasoned motorcycle adventurer Geoff Hill for lunch in Sweet Afton last week and returned later that night with colleagues from work only to find the same team beavering away, being pleasant, hospitable and accommodating without so much of a snap or snarl, which is exactly how I would have greeted any slobbers coming in through the door late at night with drink taken.
Sweet Afton is the brand of cigarettes Father Coyle used to smoke when I was growing up in Armagh. The pack was particularly attractive, featuring a portrait of Robbie Burns and a few quotes from the poem of the same name. It stuck with me. (Despite the Scottish link, they were made in Dundalk by Carroll's.)
Now, the iconography from that same brand has been used to theme the new bar and, if you can get around your cynicism, it works beautifully. There are touches of a Donegal barn of romance about the place and the fireplace and big island bar give it that established feel.
Mark Beirne knows how to create atmospheres. He is more of an artistic director than bar owner and in Sweet Afton he has given us a place that genuinely feels as established as Doheny and Nesbitt's in Dublin's Baggot Street.
There are loads of beers from various breweries and staff are quick to serve. Mark may have a sensitive touch but he also knows that the name of the game here is selling drink. But here's the great news: it does very decent pub food.
Belfast is not blessed with a broad variety of pubs that do food. There are some, most of which rely on bought-in, pre-prepared, microwaveable stuff in breadcrumbs. Here, the food is a couple of notches up. It's not fine dining; it's comfort food. There's an all-day menu that features soups with homemade wholewheat bread (gluten-free option available), a potted duck starter, gin-cured salmon with potato bread and soft-boiled egg, fish pie, catch of the day, steaks, and proper dinners like pot roast chicken with creamy champ and mushroom and bacon sauce.
We got stuck into this and there was silence. A great balancing act of sauce and champ and plenty of chicken with great farm flavours and smooth textures made this something good enough to remember and to want to try again. The earlier potted duck was like rillettes in a jar and loads of it served with toasted soda bread.
Those who want gluten-free food should take a close look at Sweet Afton as they seem to be able to offer GF alternatives and options to most dishes.
There is an express lunch menu, where for £6.95 you can get red pepper risotto with sun-blushed tomatoes and rocket or fish and chips with mushy peas or pork and leek sausages with champ and gravy or a chicken burger and there are sandwiches. Desserts, by the way, are airlifted straight from Miel et Moi, the patisserie on Lisburn Road.
I love pub lunches and have at last found the place that I can recommend.
Potted duck £6.95
Gin cured salmon £6.95
Goats cheese and beetroot £5.95
Pot roast chicken x 2£27.00
Pie of the day £10.50
Pave au chocolat £5.50
Sherry trifle £5.50
Glass Ranga Ranga white 6.50
San Pellegrino x 2£4.00