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Restaurant review: Pizza Boutique

37 Castle Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 2930

By Joris Minne

The cordon surrounding Bank Buildings threatens to strangle businesses inside and outside its perimeters. Quality restaurants and cafes have seen business either stop entirely or severely reduced. City Picnic, housed at the back of the former Anderson & McAuley building, behind Zara, has not been able to open its doors for the past month because it is just within the no-go zone behind cordon. Same goes for the McDonald's across the street.

Similarly, but perhaps less life-threateningly, restaurants and bars such as Kelly's Cellars, Mourne Seafood Bar, Pizza Boutique, Havana, La Taqueria and the Sagart have seen a drop in footfall as people either avoid the city centre entirely or give up trying to navigate around the cordon.

This week we take a look at three restaurants which are seriously worth the effort, not because of the challenges they face, but because they are quite brilliant.

The first is Pizza Boutique, the creation of talented chef James Neilly. I first encountered James in Armagh, where he headed up the kitchen in a restaurant beside the court house called the Manor Park. His food was refined and considered and featured local foraged herbs and veg. By a circuitous route through McHughs and the Potted Hen, he ended up back in Belfast and established the much-loved Pizza Boutique only a year ago.

Belfast loves pizzas, and we have witnessed an explosive growth in the sector, with more than 50 pizzerias within the city limits. This has given rise to some interesting artisanal offerings, including Belfast Woodfired Pizza and Little Wing on the Lisburn Road, and Honest Pizza in Stranmillis.

Pizza Boutique is another gourmet pizza place, but it's also a sit-down. Simple, not self-conscious or too cool, it features one of the best frescos in the city, cartoon artwork by Leo Boyd.

There's something about a pizza which immediately relaxes you. It's the informality of it, the ease with which it can be eaten, the shared, collective slobberiness of it all. Yet Neilly's pizzas are worth a closer look.

The bases are remarkably light, thin and crispy, the combinations exciting and unusual, yet potentially classics of the future. Among them are Parma ham and goat's cheese with sunblushed tomatoes and watercress, or spiced Italian sausage with jalapenos, basil and olive oil. There are vegan and GF options, a Keto Pizza for a fiver for pizza lovers who have to leave the carbs behind, and the polenta fries are addictive. Pizza Boutique is a best-in-class restaurant. You simply can't go wrong here and, to add to the joy, it's BYO.

La Taqueria is also on Castle Street, and arguably the best Mexican in Belfast. You walk in past the porn-shop-like signage, climb the stairs and enter a little corner of Guadalajara. Chef Adam Lynas is steeped in the culture. Having spent years in Montreal with his wife, who is from Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California in Mexico, and then some more years in the country itself, this makes him a naturalised citizen in my book and therefore qualifies him to claim top Mexicano status.

The beef fajitas and fish tacos are excellent, thanks to the attention to detail, careful marinating and use of authentic corn bread and other ingredients. The cocktails are also insanely good thanks to an enviable choice of tequilas.

Mourne Seafood Bar is the restaurant which changed the game in the city centre when it opened in 2009.

The first dedicated fish and seafood restaurant to open in the North, MSB quickly became a popular favourite with locals and visitors alike. Bank Square had endured a terrible reputation for decades, now MSB and Kelly's Cellars were showing the world that there were hidden charms in the heart of the city.

What's more, the food was excellent. Oysters and mussels from Strangford and Carlingford, fish on the bone and some fabulous local beers and a good wine list, made it special. The Japanese-style oysters, live and served with scallions and spiced up miso are memorable and a must for shellfish lovers.

Frequent fish of the day dishes will feature mackerel, seabass, hake and coley and I've never had a bad one.

Fillets or on the bone, the cooking is skilled and accomplished, although watch out for the coriander overload (bring your own parsley!).

So, get down to the cordon and support the restaurants, not because of where they are but because they are outstanding, excellent examples of Belfast's robust restaurant portfolio.

The bill

(Pizza Boutique)

Margarita with ham & rocket £ 9.10

Spicy Italian £10.45

Polenta £4.25

Fresh slaw £2

Bottle still water £1.50

Total £27.30

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