Howard Street: Bringing fresh idea to kitchen
You'd think a freezer would be the first item on the menu when opening a restaurant. But that's not the case in this Belfast one
The new Howard Street restaurant in Belfast is guaranteeing truly fresh food for diners – and proving it by having no deep freezer on the premises.
Owners, managing director Niall Davis from east Belfast and head chef Marty Murphy from west Belfast order small amounts of ingredients daily and source all fresh produce from as many local suppliers and producers as possible.
"We don't have a walk in-fridge as we have no need for one.
"The food is literally delivered to the back door in the morning, prepped by the chefs straight away and sold throughout the day," says Niall (28).
"We only keep a small freezer for desserts and ice.
"We wanted to keep the emphasis on really fresh food, prepared and eaten on the same day.
"I've nothing against frozen food, really, but you can't beat the taste of fresh food.
"The concept of having no freezer is just beginning to catch on.
"The food is simple but well executed. I have a great team of chefs who have worked alongside me for years.
"Andy, my sous chef, has also travelled around South East Asia and there is a lot of influence on the menu from things we have both picked up abroad.
"We also have some classics on the menu, like our French onion soup, which takes eight hours to make; but it's a labour of love and is a favourite with customers."
Howard Street's clientele includes cast members from Game of Thrones and Dracula, but former financial advisor Niall insists all customers are treated equally.
Despite business closures in the area, their only investor – First Trust bank – has ploughed £150,000 into the restaurant.
"The bank took a leap of faith with us," says Niall.
"After having meetings with various banks who nearly laughed in our faces after hearing our proposal, First Trust expressed sincere interest in our vision and showed a can-do attitude from day one.
"I think the bank has a very old school approach of believing in the people first and they took time to hear our ideas and goals for the business.
"With regard to the closures due to protests on the streets, we have always said that we're not interested in what's going on outside our front door.
"We will just concentrate on what we're doing within our four walls and hope that the word gets out that we have a good product."
Named for the street it stands upon, the elegant restaurant is housed in a building serving as a retail unit called the Depot, although it's probably best known for the High & Mighty clothes store.
Niall and Marty have succeeded in accentuating some of the authentic features, by exposing lovely brickwork and restoring the original floor, which was covered in concrete.
The old church panels used in the bar lend a theatrical air, reflected in the extensive cocktail list – 'Opening Act,' 'Intermission,' 'Finale' and 'Encore' are some of the exotic concoctions on offer.
The striking glass front doors were sourced by leading designers Oscar and Oscar, salvaged from a Christian Brothers School.
Says Niall: "It's totally unrecognisable now from when we first set foot in the unit. When we first spotted it on the market, I didn't even want to see it, as it looked pokey from the outside and Marty didn't like the frontage.
"But he went to view it on a friend's recommendation and immediately rang me, saying 'there's a restaurant going in here' – and he was right!
"It gives us great pleasure bringing back a bit of character to the room. The original plan was to polish the concrete on the floor, but Orla of Oscar and Oscar took a chisel to it and uncovered a beautiful Terrazzo floor underneath. We had the concrete lifted and the floor polished up.
Niall and Marty spent a lot of time before the restaurant opened researching the market and seeking out the best quality ingredients.
They use Ewings for fish and their beef comes from Kettyle Irish Foods in Fermanagh.
The business partners met 13 years ago, while working at the Potted Hen restaurant.
Marty has also worked as a chef in Shu, Deanes, James Street South, and Ten Square, as well as in Australia, New Zealand and Amsterdam, and studied at a Thai cookery school. "I still use some of the recipes I learned there today in my salt and chilli beef and spiced coconut Tom Yum soup," says Marty.
"With a bit of skill you can create great full flavoured dishes."
Marty lives with partner Michelle and their three children Amy (19), Beth (5) and Jude (3).
Niall lives with his girlfriend Caroline.
Says Niall: "I was 15, working as a waiter when I met Marty. His talent as a chef was unquestionable.
"I saw he was a very disciplined and driven individual, so I knew he would be a good person to go into business with in the future."
He adds: "It was long, rocky, stressful year and a half from the idea to the opening of the doors of Howard Street, but it's been worth it."
Talking turkey about food
Q Marty, who do you rate among the celebrity chefs?
Marty: Tom Kerridge seems like a really genuine guy and cooks from his heart, and this shows in his food – it's stunning.
Q What would you say to those trying to destroy trade in Belfast city centre?
Niall: Our shop front is a one-off, so kindly keep all bombs away from it! Howard Street has maintained that although everyone has a right to protest within guidelines, we also have a right to run our business without interruptions.
Q How do you feel about other restaurants, such as The Malt Room and Flame, opening nearby in recent weeks? Niall: The more the merrier. When we first looked at Howard Street I did worry that we might get left behind on this side of town, but as well as these restaurants, Deane's is expanding and there is a five-star hotel opening on Bedford Street. It's great that our area is now another option to the Cathedral Quarter. It would be great to see a couple more bars appear, but maybe that will be our next project.
Q What would be your last meal if you were on Death Row?
Marty: Thai Green curry and a Singha beer.
Niall: My dad's spag bol is pretty hard to beat with a nice glass of red wine. I don't think he would be doing too much cooking for me though, if I was on Death Row.