Restaurants come in three categories. Regardless of price range or star-rating restaurants can be classed under the three headings: "Deserves to succeed", "Should be placed on life support", or "Avoid".
A restaurant which deserves to succeed is the one which unhesitatingly comes to mind when the adviser suggests going out for lunch or dinner.
My go-to happy places in these situations range from Kurrito on Botanic Avenue to James Street South, the Meat Locker and Muddler's Club. OX, Nu Delhi, La Taqueria and Macau are also in this season's premier division.
Restaurants which should be on life support are those which are almost good but which are failing on one of three points: environment, service or food. For instance, The Vestry café which is housed in the same former church as the top class Saphyre, is inconsistent on service and food. My mother-in-law swears by it and loves it but the adviser has had her ups and downs in the place. A bit of tightening up on training and quality produce would quickly straighten this out.
Places to avoid include a world famous Belfast city centre bar (The Crown Liquor Saloon) where I've endured the worst food in Belfast. It's appearance on these pages has been unhappy. Paradoxically, it's also one of the places to enjoy the best pints you can get in the city.
Some restaurants fall between these categories.
These are the restaurants which you really hope and wish will be good, but manage to disappoint nonetheless. The juggling act necessary to ensure a good restaurant experience (and I stress that this applies to fast food joints as clearly as it does to Michelin-starred brasseries) requires managers and staff to make the place comfortable and free of draughts with good lighting, excellent, friendly servers and good food. If you have all three, you will succeed no matter where the location is.
For Salt Bistro in Belfast, two out of three is not enough. It's a pleasant restaurant to sit in and the front of house people are charming, youthful and helpful. But the food is not up to the job.
This is a restaurant which qualifies for life support because it's worth saving. The location is great and you get the feeling that if the chef would just stop overcooking fish, that it would be a very good little place to go before seeing a show at the MAC next door.
I recently went with the sea captain whose former life in the fisheries protection fleet means he knows a thing or two about fish. Haddock fish cakes had a fair ratio of fish to potato and the bite of the chilli within was welcome, even if the captain, a man more in tune with simple and straightforward flavours, fears a little heat. Mussels were overcooked and heading towards shrivelled but the fact that there were so few of them anyway meant that this was largely forgettable.
Plaice for both of us provided the evidence to determine that both dishes of the dried-out filets were overcooked. If one had been better cooked, then we could overlook the overcooking of the other as an accident. Dipped in a soft breadcrumb coating, the filets just couldn't survive the time in the pan. Conversely, the crushed potatoes beneath were delightfully moist and rich, buttery and robustly tasty. There was an odd flavour from the accompanying green beans and I couldn't put my finger on whether they had suffered from burnt butter or some other unfortunate incident.
When the dishes were being cleared, the server asked if everything was OK. We answered to say that the fish had been overcooked but that seeing as we were hungry we ate most of it anyway. He said he was grateful for the comment and would let the chef know. That's not really good enough if you're running a good restaurant. If the complaint is reasonable, then surely the point is to try to get these punters back and remove the offending items from the bill.
Salt Bistro is the kind of restaurant I really wish would deliver. Its seaside feel, its current BYO situation and the intimacy of the place means one really wants to stay on and enjoy the evening there.
Unfortunately, the poor food has been a recurring theme over the past three or four visits and I see no improvement.
Fishcakes ........................................ £6.50
Mussels ........................................... £7.00
Plaice x 2............................................ £30
Corkage (wine)............................... £3.50