Restaurant review: We try out bistro Made in Belfast
City Hall, Wellington Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 6712
Predictability is important to the hospitality sector. Visitors like to know they're returning to a place they loved years ago or that the restaurant they visited last week is consistent and can be recommended. In Madrid, there's a restaurant called El Botin which is the world's oldest and I like to call in there for the roast suckling pig as I have done on and off for the last 35 years. I know it's there and will always go back to it. The day it's not there, or if the food's no good (the service was always surly) then I don't know what I'll do.
Made in Belfast which opened eight years ago took the city's restaurant sector by the throat, shook it around like a rabid dog with its crazy post-apocalypse wallpaper, scrap furniture and ex-ICU bed pan crockery, and really didn't seem to have much longevity.
Then it quietly settled down to become a long-term fixture serving quality chicken from Fermanagh and spuds from Comber. It has since acquired that hard-to-secure reputation of being a place you really ought to visit when in Belfast.
Despite Jay Rayner's excoriating review (he thought the leprechauns were in charge there were so many references to Irish products on the menu), Made in Belfast has withstood the test of time and can be relied on to serve up a quality meal.
It still has the mad defiance and insolence about it.
The higgledy-pigglediness, the radiators right up at the top of the walls by the ceiling, the teenager's bedroom chic, all these features are probably less disturbing than when it first opened. But it's still cool and popular with the youth, according to Teen 2 in our house.
Also, the restaurant has been there long enough for the youth's parents to feel they are entitled to be there too without recourse to too much ripped denim. And you will find correctly attired and unselfconscious office workers going there for their lunch on a weekday.
It works well for lunch. There are so many restaurants in town who don't seem to realise that they are not getting the lunch trade they so dearly need because service is too slow. Sometimes you will zip through a decent two-course lunch, have time for coffee and the bill and then wait for an infuriating 15 minutes or more for the card machine to be handed over.
They think you're grand, you've had your lunch now so the rush is over. No! The rush ain't over until we're back at our desk!
Made in Belfast service clips along nicely and when you suspect it's slowing down they quickly react to requests.
Also, the tin bed pan crockery has been replaced by proper plates. Which is a relief. I never liked those rust patches seeping through the cracks and chips in the white enamel.
On the wall, beneath the radiators there is a blackboard announcing today's provenance of meats (Hannan's), chicken (McCartan Brothers), pork (Jim Ryan) and lamb (Topping Meats).
This is the second sign that tells you you are in a well-run restaurant. The first sign was the greeting at the door, warm, welcoming and quickly efficient. There is a lunch menu rammed with specials at excellent prices and the wine list matches the frugality.
Prices for main courses are around £6 or £7 and the choice is broad: potted local crab with fennel confit, crispy prawns and homemade wheaten bread, Irish cheeseburger, pepper sauce and crispy onions, 24-hour slow roast Irish beef brisket sandwich, caramelised onion, red wine butter, horse radish mayo and leaves, local prawn, lemon and spinach risotto and a few more. But because someone else is paying I go a la carte and head straight to the grilled fillet of sustainable hake, crab-crushed potatoes, crispy kale, and broccoli with lobster sauce.
My partner in the ring today and I share a risotto for starters.
A risotto can be so subjective (chefs are almost on the verge of banning it from some of their restaurants because one customer will say of the same risotto that it is too mushy while the other will say too crunchy, etc) most bloggers cannot leave it alone as it's an easy target. But this one is text book. Creamy, textured and with just the right element of spinach and prawns, this is a generous dish, perfect for sharing as a starter.
The sustainable hake is a further delight, glistening white, steamy and light, supported by the hard core, salty crab crushed potatoes and the kale is a proper full leaf made as light as cigarette paper and crispier than Tayto. The lemon and thyme roasted free range chicken supreme, veg, gratin and bacon and mushroom sauce is rich and velvety. Everyone's happy.
Made in Belfast is as good as it ever was. The service is even better, the room is bright and airy and once you get the hang of the old school chairs, not really that uncomfortable after all.