Entrepreneur Sam Spain and chef Tony O'Neill have built a reputation in the last five years for good, Italian food at inexpensive prices served by cool servers in club-like surroundings. Il Pirata, Coppi and Bartali are named after Italian cycling icons of the 20th century. Tony O'Neill is a cycling legend too; a man who is so powerful of leg and body he regularly snaps bicycle chains and bends cycle frames in the hellish hill climbs he frequently tackles.
His devotion to cycling may be the reason for jettisoning the Barking Dog restaurant from the group. Dogs and bikes don't get on. I have one of each and have close experience of the in-built loathing of dogs for bikes and of cyclists for dogs. Dogs, especially those crazed sheepdogs out on isolated country lanes, can be relied on to launch ferocious attacks on innocent cyclists. Was this at the back of Sam and Tony's minds when they passed on Barking Dog to chef Michael O'Connor and manager Michael Fletcher?
Whatever the reason, the restaurant remains a strong contender for a listing in Belfast's Top Ten. A visit last week with two teens was intended as a consolation prize for an aborted visit to Love Bird, a restaurant whose phone was still working, but which no longer existed (it's a long story).
This is the thing about Barking Dog. It is the fits-every-size, suits-every-mood restaurant whose magnetic appeal to the dude-food junkie as much as the more sensitive fish-loving gastronome, never fades. Its consistency is bomb proof.
Michael O'Connor is current holder of the Yelp! Belfast Best Burger award, having won the title in a 40-way burger-off late last year. I would contend, however, your honour, that what he calls a shin burger is a completely different affair to a beef patty as seen in Bulletproof, Five Guys, Hotplate, City Picnic, McDonald's or Burger King. It is an apple in a box of pears, a swan among the ducks, Miss Venezuela in the Rose of Tralee. Therefore it should have been disqualified.
But this is utterly irrelevant because the shin burger is bucket-list good. By this I mean it should be on your list of 100 things to eat in Belfast before you die. The teens both had one and the standard was remarkably consistent with previous outings.
A large thick wooden plank supported a green mountain of balsamic drizzled rocket leaves; the burger towered alongside; the brioche buns were toasted and coated with horseradish mayo and that big dark burger was lying centre stage.
The shin meat, shredded and pulled, has been reformed into a burger patty and then roasted in a pan.
It is juicy to the bite, its structure remains sound to the end and the beefy flavour and texture are unlike any ground mince burger you will put in your mouth. It is an award winner, if not of that award, if you see what I mean.
My smoked cod with smashed potatoes, spinach and hollandaise was as entertaining. The large piece of fish fell apart like a puzzle, the interlocking sections of pearly white fish, slipping away from each other, perfectly cooked, moist and salty. The potatoes and spinach beneath provided bulk and sustenance, making a classic of this simple dish.
The menu is as exciting as it always was, full of choices of small plates, starters and mains.
Not many restaurants achieve a reputation for their signature dishes, but Barking Dog has managed it with its shin burger. But this is not where my award would go. The Joris Minne Best Starter Award must go to the restaurant's outstanding steak tartare with raw egg yolk.
Sometimes steak tartare can be over produced with too many spices and flavourings to add firepower to the delicate raw beef flavours. Often, it can be minced right down to almost a paté-like quality so you can spread it on your toasted sourdough. Barking Dog's is no such cop-out. Here you have a coarsely chopped steak into which some Worcester sauce, chives and an almost imperceptible hint of parsley have been introduced. But it's the light, slightly metallic, cool beef which shines through. It is astonishingly good.
The two Michaels have done the right thing: no visible alterations, maintained good service and kept the live music of a Sunday afternoon.
Also, their impeccable taste in artisanal product means they have Finn Pilsner lager from Cumberland Breweries in Newry. It's crisp, clear and with no hint of acridity that bedevils so many craft lagers. And it's dangerously easy to drink.
Crab tapas x 2 £7.00
Steak tartare £8.50
Shin burger x 2 £29.00
Smoked cod £17.50
Finn Pilsner £3.50
Glass Esk Sauv blanc £4.90
Coke x 2 £4.00