Joris Minne: Hooples
This new eatery has brought a little bit of Spain to the Lisburn Road, but are they offering simple tapas or something new?
The Lisburn Road in Belfast is the culinary gift to Northern Ireland that keeps on giving. With a portfolio of restaurants, delis and coffee houses which would make a Parisian blush, the strip constitutes an entire foodie ecology of its own. Places come and go in a natural circle-of-life kind of frequency. Lily’s Bar Restaurant has had two former identities within the last ten years, Rollo Pollo next door packed up and left us last month and there’s any number of pizzerias, Indians and Chineses popping up and then vanishing to keep the punters coming back looking for more.
The latest new kid on the block, Hooples, which has filled the space left by The Other Place, promises to add a shiny new bulb to the string of dazzling Lisburn Road lights. The overdesigned exterior is not intended to blend into the street’s otherwise drab front and it catches the eye.
This makes complete sense if you’re trying to capture attention and footfall. Step inside, and the wacko modern fusion of baroque plant motifs with low swerving bar, goldfish bowl kitchen and projected movies (Breakfast at Tiffany’s was on when we went) beamed up onto the back wall tell you something about the efforts being made to strike a different note, create a new mood and effectively, not to be like everyone else.
The owners are old hands at popular catering with two established cafes in Belfast. They like to keep a low profile, but Hooples is a departure from the ground floor of popular catering which they would be more used to. It’s a distinct attempt to enter the higher levels of dining. And they are clued into what’s trending at the moment — small plates. The small plates concept is warmly embraced at Hooples. This is a welcome trend as it provides more scope and variety. Hooples, like Love & Death, is almost phobic about the word “tapas”. This is definitely not tapas, the front of house man, Bernard O’Neill, explains. It’s small dishes. I push him a bit and say: OK it’s Spanish but it’s not tapas yet the dishes are small so is it more like pintxos, which are a bit more substantial than tapas, like you get in the Basque country? No.
What it is, is a smaller version of the, er, bigger dish at a lower price. It makes sense if you want to have lots of things to dip in and out of. Personally, I’m in favour but I imagine some older folk will struggle with the idea that their dinner is a series of meals rather than one big one.
And when you start enjoying those Spanish flavours, you quickly see why it’s such a blessing to be able to try out so many more. The menu is packed with all sorts of Iberian magic. The peasant robustness of Spanish food is easily dismissed by some as limited in scope and predictable. But when you head to the Basque country or the Balearics, the Asturian coast and the the high plains of La Mancha, the food starts to make itself known. It’s not all jamon Iberico and manchego cheese. And Hooples has mined the Spanish repertoire as deeply as anyone.
There are dishes here I never came across even after living in Madrid for three years. Hooples’ version of salmorejo, for instance, a gorgeous porridge of bread, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and other marvels is an absolute winner. Its like a kind of thick gazpacho made richer and more complex because of the bread.
There are old Spanish standards like the potato and onion frittata, made infamous by Harrison Ford in Morning Glory, only this time it’s a mini version; lentil and chorizo stew (surprisingly only available as a large dish), crispy squid, mussels and monkfish dishes. Among these are the surprises which make a meal an adventure. The giant prawn lollipops, for instance, aren’t quite as nuts as they sound. They are prawns coated in a thick and crunchy breadcrumb shell which has a spicy kick, with a mango and yoghurt dip for cooling purposes.
But where Hooples scores the most points is at the grill. Beef fillet, cod fillet and free range chicken fillet get the chargrill treatment which immediately transports you to a beach on the Med. The mini brochette of marinated lamb on a bed of rice was excellent. There’s a magic which can come from marrying rice to burnt bits of meat.
In true fusion style, there’s a menu of burgers as well. They are tiny but beautifully formed and you can have beef, venison, fish or pork with all manner of unconventional accompaniments including wasabi, pickled cucumber, smoked cheese or even red pesto.
The adviser was not seduced by the place — it’s not lived-in enough. But she conceded that some of the dishes were fabulous and that low sweeping bar is compelling. Her point that Hooples makes it easy to be adventurous and to dip into foods you aren’t familiar with is important. And while Hooples might not have invented small dishes, they’ve brought something Belfast hasn’t seen in a while — a taste of proper, pukka exotica.
Small Spanish meats £8
Crispy squid £9.95
Chocolate caramel cube £6.95
Chocolate fondant £6.95
Large sparkling water £4.20
Diet Coke £1.95
537 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7GQ
Tel: 028 9066 3108