Belfast City Council’s successful bid to bring back life to St George’s Market is the greatest miracle to bless this earth since Lazarus picked himself up and walked home.
Every Friday and Saturday morning throngs of shoppers now buy their fruit and veg, fish and meat, jams and chutneys underneath the gloriously restored Victorian iron arches of the covered market. There’s laughing and shouting, banter and slagging and a general to-do the likes of which you expect to find in any city in the world. It’s one of the markers which defines us these days as a normal society.
And just like everybody else on a market day, we like to stop and have something to eat and drink, rest our weary limbs and watch the world go by for a few minutes.
Upstairs in St George’s Market is the Bar & Grill, formerly known as the Exchange Restaurant. It’s always been there, but because it’s upstairs, it seems to some a bit forgotten and overlooked. The legal fraternity, which operates in the area, knows all about it and each time I’ve visited it has been populated by quietly-spoken suits taking a break from their courtroom battles.
But each time I’ve visited recenty, I’ve worried that it might not have improved since the last time. On three occasions in the last six months the brilliant service has been badly let down by appalling food. Which just shows you how much you can be forgiven if the service is good. People love to be treated well, and the manager, Kathy Toye, and her team of young servers are fast, friendly and keen to please.
They’ve been very good about complaints, handling one particular meal I had recently with the diplomatic skills of Hillary Clinton. A three-course lunch was disastrous — each dish being sent back for various reasons: crab cakes with no crab; meat too tough to cut; meringues like hockey pucks. Yet because of the charm and genuine concern of the front-of-house staff, I went back for more. The third visit last month paid off. I played very safe with a single course of soup of the day with wheaten bread.
A large bowl of deep sienna-coloured squash soup with chilli turned out to be very good. A beautifully smooth, thick and warm dish, it had all the careful balance you expect of something much more expensive — this was £3.95.
Soups are notoriously difficult to get right. A little too much water and the whole thing tastes metallic and thin. Another common complaint is too much salt, which grabs you by the throat. This was spot-on and had managed to combine the very subtle (some would say impossible-to-find) flavours of squash with the sharp chilli tones. The Guinness wheaten bread had presence too, with a marvellous crumbly texture and dark evidence of stout. The wheaten flavours are earthy and subtle and, with a bit of butter, provide a moment of simple pleasure.
At the table was the mighty Anthony Miller, who is at the coalface of Belfast’s embryonic fashion sector. Miller comes here a lot, as his office is next door and he says the food is reliable, despite my own experiences.
He let me taste his beef stew, which was very good. The beef had been cooked slowly and flaked under the knife, sodden with lovely gravy and accompanied by big agricultural chunks of carrots. The mash was creamy and buttery and the hunk of crusty bread, while surplus to the whole thing, lent a welcome new texture.
I’m glad the food is good because I’ve always enjoyed coming to the restaurant in St George’s. There’s something magical about being upstairs above the hubbub, being served drink and food in a very well lit, low-ceilinged, downtown restaurant where the service counts as the biggest attraction. For real market lovers, you can get breakfast from 8am on Fridays and from 9am on Saturdays in here.
Also, there seems to be a genuine attempt at being as homey as possible, with Caesar salads made with Armagh chicken, Fivemiletown goat’s cheese tart with spinach, Portavogie haddock and, claims the chef, Strangford crab in the crab cakes, which makes it just the kind of place to round off a visit to the market. And just as you’d expect to get a bargain in a market, the prices in the Bar & Grill will not scare you off either.
Soup of the day £3.95
Beef stew, mash and crusty bread £7.95
Rosé d’Anjou glass x 2 £11.90