Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant review: We try out Holohans at the Barge

1 Lanyon Quay, Belfast BT1 3LG. Tel: 028 9023 5973.

By Joris Minne

Restaurants on boats are a good idea in places like Paris. The idea of gliding along the Seine in a luxury bateau mouche on a summer's night while sitting comfortably at a dinner table with your beloved enjoying a champagne dinner as you sweep past Notre Dame cathedral is a compelling one.

But could a bit of boxty on a Belfast barge moored across the street from the Lagan Courts match that Parisian magic? A recent visit during which I witnessed a small party of French tourists enjoying exactly that would indicate that we cannot underestimate our own powers of seduction.

Holohan's at the Barge is a charming and, yes, seductive, little restaurant located on the upper deck of a Dutch barge brought to Belfast some years ago as part of an effort to liven up the city centre's Lagan frontage. Its proximity to the Waterfront Hall and the new exhibition centre should prove a big advantage, particularly during the winter months when most visitors are likely to be conference delegates.

I'm always sceptical about restaurants with views or which major on their unusual location as these can sometimes distract from the paucity of the food and service. But Holohans is not like this. This is a very good restaurant which offers high class food and service. What's more, the food is seasonal and based on traditional Irish recipes and produce.

Take crabachain, for instance. A rich, earthy mixture of mushrooms, chestnuts and tarragon as rustic as the woodlands it comes from, is unique to Ireland. It is a tribute to chef patron Calvin Holohan's knowledge of ancient Irish culinary arts to see it revived.

The seasons are also well defined here. The current winter menu features game and root veg. The pigeon breast with radicchio and hazelnut dressing is a case in point.

The boxty is very hard to go past with its warm, voluminous lushness full of comfort and joy. As versatile as a French crepe, you can just about put anything you want into this potato-based pancake. On this particular day there was seafood in a velvety creamy mornay sauce accompanied by some roasted parsnips and carrots. The simplicity of the dish belies the fabulously satisfying flavours and textures. It feels as balanced and nutritious as it is sinfully addictive. Watch out for the volumes as these are super generous portions.

At other times I've had the roast hake which comes with an irresistible garlic mash, samphire, crayfish, capers and dulse butter. Accompanied on the last visit by two teens who had salt aged beef short rib, I listened to their concentrated silence as they chomped through it and the buttermilk champ and stout jus. The older one was just back from England and you know the way young ones get all misty eyed when they're back on tierra irlandesa? Well, she was nearly crying with joy eating this. (You'd think they had nothing but tripe and onions over there).

Desserts are no afterthought. The pre Great Famine culinary lexicon may have been largely forgotten and desserts unheard of, but items like plum and ginger cake or trifle with brownie, custard and Baileys and the cheese board which features fig cake, oat cake and Guinness spread, mean if you are looking for the ultimate Irish diner, look no further.

Holohans at the Barge is an unexpectedly uplifting experience. Being on the water is one thing but there is an intimacy in this bright little dining room with its dock worker furniture and quality crystal. The wine list is creative and well priced and the range of Irish beers, whiskies and gins matches some of the best cocktail bars in town.

Service is charming and attentive and the view into the micro-galley kitchen is inspirational. The Holohans know hospitality. You might see a few family members on board helping out. Mixing family with business in the Irish hospitality sector is an old tradition and these guys have nailed it.

The bill

Pigeon breast .................................£7.00

Hake ...............................................£16.00

Short rib x 2 ..................................£36.00

Boxty .............................................£12.00

Ginger cake .....................................£6.00

Total: ..............................................£77.00

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