Word of mouth steered us in the direction of this Indian — and we weren’t disappointed
Competition among the 1,000 or so restaurants in Northern Ireland is intense and as a result the industry has created as diverse a range of choice as a Thomas Cook holiday brochure. In order to attract customers, restaurant owners develop all sorts of marketing approaches to raise their visibility and pulling power. Leafleting homes and businesses works well for certain restaurants who want to promote their offer, particularly in quieter times of the week by perhaps offering two meals for the price of one, or even a free bottle of wine. Others go for the loyalty card, whereby your tenth visit is stamped in the card rewarding you with a free dinner.
More sophisticated and upmarket places don’t think this kind of cheap and cheerful approach reflects well on their operation and they rely more on a slow-build reputation based on the quality of service, food and decor. Deanes group, for instance, is well known as a quality place thanks largely to its consistent presence in the Michelin guide. James Street South has been developing its reputation as another high-quality venue through subtle promotions in association with wine merchants.
But for all the controlled communications and marketing strategies that any business might adopt to help boost its sales, the one that is most elusive and hard to control but also the most effective is word-of-mouth.
Word-of-mouth is the most powerful public relations tool in the vast arsenal of marketing and communications weaponry available to mankind. PR people like me work hard to kick-start positive word-of-mouth reports about clients. One measure of success recognised as a sure sign that things are moving in the right direction is the taxi driver index. If a visitor to Belfast asks a taxi driver to take them to a good restaurant and that driver goes straight to the Spice Club in Shaw’s Bridge, it’s either because he has a special interest or he is genuinely passing on word-of-mouth.
This has happened three times to me in as many months. Two taxi drivers and a city councillor have said the Spice Club is one of the best Indian restaurants in Belfast. Having endured an appalling meal in the Spice Club’s sister eatery, the Belfast Bar and Grill at the Ramada Hotel complex in Shaw’s Bridge, I had my doubts — but three hits deserves checking out.
A quirky and mildly confusing entrance into the restaurant’s lobby — there is an Ayurveda beauty treatment place with attendant beauties in white coats on the ground floor — leads upstairs to the Spice Club.
A high sloping ceiling, and a multi-textured floor of rustic cream tiles, mosaic, wood and carpet have created a graceful and elegant dining room. Wrought-iron chandeliers, the tinkling of a water fountain, piped classical Indian music and gold and white furniture and table settings enhance the classy, gentle Asian mood and a dark wood bar as imposing as a Catholic church’s altar completes the imposing picture.
It’s a big place and there are acres of space between tables, yet it all feels luxurious and intimate. Paper napkins take a slight edge off the business-class look but that’s a minor gripe because the service is instantly attentive and friendly.
Still suspicious, I was convinced that a family of four wouldn’t get out of here for less than £120, but a run through the simple menu dispersed any such misgivings. Apart from the fact that there is a four-course set menu for £35 ‘for a couple’ (it includes four starters, four mains and a dessert of gulab jamoon, which is balls of cheese cooked in sugar syrup) the starters are all incredibly reasonably priced.
From £3.25 for onion bhajis to £5.95 for the regal tandoori jhinga — marinated king prawns cooked in the tandoor oven — there are up to 16 to choose from. Out of the four we ordered, one was exquisite, two were good and one was forgettable. The brilliant red snapper tikka was plentiful and the flavours well balanced. The bite-size fish cubes had been marinated and baked in the oven covered with the tikka spiciness. The murg malai kebab, little chunks of pale chicken deceptively tasty and served with a salad, went down the sceptical throats of the young ones without protest. But the hara bhara kebab, little deep-fried pucks of minced spinach and nuts, was tasteless. When I showered the pucks with lemon juice they acquired the flavours I imagine you might encounter when chewing a bar of soap.
The mains, however, were very good, lighter perhaps but no finer than the Khyber Tandoori just a mile or two up the road from here. The adviser’s chicken tikka chilli massala was deep and rich with enough of a kick to provide her with some excitement although she would have liked it hotter. The Malabar chicken curry had a smokey flavour that hinted at something more French than Indian and, with the fragrant pilau rice, was delightful. The shared butter chicken had slight traces of liquorice driven by the cardamom and as a result was well received.
Highlights would have to be two of the simplest components of the meal — the raita and the naan. Described as the Spice Club’s own, the raita — a yoghurt into which has been mixed some mint, cucumber, tomatoes and various spices — was the kind of thing you’d want to have gallons of in pots around the house so you could dip into it all day long.
Dipping a ripped piece of the naan into this raita turned out to be the holy grail in the Spice Club. The naan’s textures, bits of it crispy, others soft and cottony, produced a small golden quilt of warmth and comfort.
Should you try the Spice Club — and, according to the two taxi drivers, many Indian visitors to Belfast ask to be taken there rather than the other way round — then have anything you like so long as you have some plain naan and the house raita. You’ll thank the fact you spent 65p on the Belfast Telegraph today.
Fish tikka £3.95
Murgh malai Kebab x 2 £7.90
Prawn tandoori £5.95
Hara Bhara kebab £3.95
Chicken tikka chilli £12.95
Malabar curry £12.95
Butter chicken £12.50
Trka dall £3.25
Carlsberg x 2 £6.70
Diet Coke x 2 £3.30
Glass wine £4.25