The restaurant circle of life is an ever-spinning wonder. So when tiny Italian-style restaurant Chubby Cherub recently moved a few yards from its original site in Upper Arthur Street around the corner to the grander location which formerly housed Oscar's Champagne Bar on Chichester Street, there was much to be curious about.
Oscar's had been a kind of alternative version of Invest NI. It was always hiving with big property nobs, financiers and investors and many large-scale projects were hatched here. I remember meeting a property developer, a lawyer and two bookies in Oscar's 15 years ago to announce that we, the trustees of the crumbling Old Museum Arts Centre were to build a brand new arts centre in the Half Bap for £17m. It would contain two theatres, dance rehearsal rooms, bars, restaurant and three exhibition areas. They laughed, slapped me on the back, bought me another drink and told me to wise up. (The MAC opened in 2013).
Oscar's was that rare place in which chancers and dreamers got to rub shoulders with big investors, sharp brains and people with commercial visions.
Where have they all gone, I wonder, because three recent visits to the Cherub failed to unearth any of this beau monde. All I have seen are families up from the country for a city shopping trip. If you know where the Oscar's crowd has gone, I'd be grateful if you let me know.
Chubby Cherub is now a very attractive, brightly lit bistro glitteringly decorated in belle epoque rococo pearls, golds and crystal dangly bits. To animate this is legendary and flamboyant front of house man Miko whose smiling Italian accent is as seductive as Marcello Mastroianni reading Dante. With just a whiff of the Cheyenne Social Club you would have thought the Oscar's crowd would mob the place.
Three visits have resulted in a mixed bag of experiences ranging from the best seafood risotto in Belfast to the worst pizza I've had to endure. Ever.
The first visit was to result in an unhappy encounter with a duck ragu. The generously proportioned dish was bland to the point of tastelessness, the pasta overcooked and mushy, the ragu too like a regular stew with peas and carrots. The slow cooked duck wasn't bad but the whole thing was a disappointment, especially when you're expecting something like Coppi's version. Conversely, the adviser was complimentary about her seafood risotto referencing the texture (always a tricky point as everybody has their own idea of what makes the perfect risotto texture) and volume of prawns. She loved it.
The second trip was an early morning visit. The Belfast Breakfast Bruschetta featuring a thick bed of toasted sourdough on to which was artistically piled bacon, mushroom, tomato, black pudding, parmesan and rocket, the mound crowned with a soft poached egg, worked quite beautifully until I uncovered the pesto bombshell which upset the balance of the entire dish. Effectively a reconfigured Ulster Fry, everything was grand until the pesto made its presence felt. It was as unexpected and unpleasant as toothpaste on toast.
I imagine the other bruschetta featuring buffalo mozzarella and tomato would have accommodated the pesto much more happily. But black pudding and pesto is definitely not a thing.
A lunchtime return was remarkable for a pizza which showed up bereft of any border crust. I had asked for a margherita with added olives and anchovies. What was delivered looked like something from a research laboratory operated by people who have heard of pizza but have never seen or tasted one.
The sauce and olives looked fine, but that lack of crust looked sinister and disturbing. To make things worse, the anchovies were vinegar pickled rather than preserved in all their salty glory in olive oil. This was the worst pizza in Belfast.
I'm sorry it came to this because I know the people who own it. They also operate AM:PM which is very popular and works well. But if an Italian restaurant can screw up the most basic of Italian foods, pizza, not even Miko or the good lighting can make things better.
Seafood risotto £12.50
Pizza Margherita £11.90
Added olives and anchovies £1.50
San Pellegrino water £2.50
Espresso x 2 £5.20