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Restaurant review: Havana Bank Square in Belfast

56 Berry Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 90 310 809

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Havana Bank Square

Havana Bank Square

Havana Bank Square

Havana Bank Square

Havana Bank Square

Every prospective restaurateur who dreams of owning his or her own restaurant has an idea in their head of what it would look like and what food it would serve.

When chef Andy Rae tired of working for others his dream of owning a stylish, Belfast bistro serving local quality seafood was realised and the Mourne Seafood Bar was born, a restaurant which now appears in most international guides to Ireland.

When Chris McGowan eventually left Richard Corrigan's hugely successful stable of London restaurants and opened Wine & Brine in Moira, his idea of a restaurant celebrating Irish Ulster produce in a busy little market town became something that everyone acknowledges is among the best in the country.

And so it was for Niall McKenna whose James Street and Hadskis have clear identities of informality and quality, James Neilly and his three Pizza Boutiques and most famously of all perhaps, Stevie Toman and Alain Kerloc'h who created Ox.

I imagine there must have been a point at which Patrick Magee whose creation, Havana Bank Square, thought Cuban classics like ropa vieja, huevos Habanero and picadillo would be a hit in Belfast. But more on this in a minute.

Havana Bank Square is a charming city centre bistro dripping with images of the Cuban capital, Che Guevara and all the other icons of the communist Caribbean island. The old Belfast red brick commercial house at the back of the Castle Court shopping centre with high ceilings and sturdy metal pillars lends itself to the Cuban theme.

The cocktails feature rum-based treats and some of the soundtrack is possibly sourced from the Buena Vista Social Club.

But little if anything from the Cuban culinary tradition appears on the menu. For those who know Havana Bank Square, the search for ropa vieja and other Cuban classics (there isn't even a Cuban sandwich on the menu) was abandoned long ago and instead the restaurant became very popular on the back of its excellent salt and chill chicken goujons, braised beef cheek and mash and its Irish ham and honey mustard sourdough sandwiches. The menu is extensive and versatile. There are small plate versions of some of these for £4; lunch courses for £8 and sandwiches are only £7. This is ideal lunch price pointing.

It may have been something to do with the dearth of chefs who could take on the Cuban repertoire. So instead, we have a restaurant which does the kind of food you crave particularly at weekends(!) every day of the week in a cool Cuban setting. And it is very good.

The salt and chilli chicken is a winning combination of crispy texture, savoury and spicy flavour and soft, tender and very tasty chicken within.

It is plentiful which is a good thing as it is just the kind of thing you want to pick at for ever, one little goujon at a time.

Accompanying these is a robust Asian salad with lime tanginess and a curry mayonnaise for the fries. It's frankly addictive. A confit of Silverhill duck leg is outstanding, dark, shredding from the bone, crispy skin, tons of flavour and beautifully set among smoked, cracked potatoes and crunchy red cabbage.

The seabream is a knockout: crispy skin to the point of brittle, light crackling, pearly white meat flaking off perfectly into polite fork-sized morsels and joined on the plate by a sensational chorizo risotto and some creme fraiche.

Then there's the service led by the charismatic Robert Watson who is the epitome of charm and hospitality.

He must be one of the best front of house managers in the business and he's been here since Havana Bank Square first opened.

He sets the tone and pace of service, moving about the place quickly but not distractingly so, his staff doing as he does.

This is where the Cuban spirit and sense of joy and enthusiasm is most distinctive.

The chef is Daniel Harvey. I sincerely hope that Daniel is very happy where he is and isn't harbouring any dreams of opening his own place any time soon.

Or looking up Cuban recipes. What's here is just fine.

The bill

Salt and Chilli Chicken main - £8

Duck - £12

Crème brulee - £4

Total - £24

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