Joris Minne: So-so food and service is the elephant in the room at Ivory
The Ivory, Victoria Square, Belfast Tel: 028 9032 4577
The Ivory is a restaurant perched on the top floor of Belfast's Victoria Square shopping mall. It's been there ever since the mall opened 10 years ago. It occupies a prime site with a view. By any standards, the location gives the restaurant a head start.
The adviser and I visited recently and, unable to find anyone (we waited a few minutes near the entrance, the restaurant was half-empty, but there seemed to be no staff around), we went to Zizzi instead. When you think Zizzi is going to be better than some place else, you know there's something up.
This week, I made a return visit with a fearless journalist from a sister newspaper. This time would be different. There was staff and a good few tables in, too. It could be that I hadn't paid attention the first time I came here some years earlier, but I couldn't really see any difference in the place.
In fact, when I sat down on the edge of a banquette at a table for two, the innards of the seat appeared to have long since been worn down to paper-thin meanness and had lost volume, meaning a very awkward reach for the cutlery and food, which was now on a table far higher.
The Ivory has the feel and smell of one of those regional airport restaurants with mid-Nineties dark wood and faux leather upholstery. You cannot find a good spot, because, in fact, there is no heart in the place. It's just a void with tables and chairs and the strong, lingering whiff of disinfectant.
But we're here now and the menu looks interesting. There are tones hinting at Middle Eastern exotic, with borlotti bean hummus with harissa, dukkha, carrots sticks and flatbread. This is excellent. Texture and flavour of the hummus, interestingly lighter than the chickpea version, is heightened by the pomegranate seeds and sprinkling of dukkha.
The harissa creates little disturbance. This is one of the great spices of the world, a wonderful preserver and hotter-upper of all things it touches.
But not today. Which is surprising, because chef Adam Sarhan, formerly of the Quartisan, where he was cooking authentic, fiery, beautifully balanced Middle Eastern dishes, is now the kitchen boss.
A very charming server is attentive and informed and we both lean towards the North African names for a number of starters, rather than any mains.
There are grilled chicken skewers with sumac, grilled vegetables, pomegranate and zaatar-spiced creme fresh. Zaatar is the signature flavour of Lebanon, providing dusty depth, heat and tone to all dishes. Sumac is a fruit herb typical of culinary traditions across Africa, which gives tang and bite.
None of this is evident in either of our chicken dishes. The chicken itself has as much moisture as tumble-dried chamois and the flavours have all died somewhere else.
A plate of salt and chilli prawns, on the other hand, is delightful, light and bursting with plump and juicy flavours backed up by sparkling tomato ceviche and watercress and saffron aioli.
The prawns are proof that somebody in the kitchen knows what to do. The hand of Sarhan is evident.
Then there is a terribly long wait. It's a Tuesday lunchtime: people have work to get back to, or shops to visit.
This goes beyond tolerable and I suggest we pay for what we've had when journo nudges the server. Not sure if they had forgotten, or what, but the food eventually arrives.
It wasn't worth the wait. A bowl of gnocchi with merguez sausage, two of my favourite things, is supported in vain by some spinach (tasty), preserved lemons (nice chew), capers and ricotta, all fine.
But they can do nothing to bring back to life the tasteless and listless merguez, nor the fat and greasy gnocchi.
We don't stay for coffee as we ran out of time half-an-hour ago.
The Ivory can do better than this. It's coming up to Christmas; they surely must have some of the best opportunities to attract diners in all day long.
But at these prices, the so-so food, slow service and an unattractive and dated environment, way past its design sell-by date, there are far better places to drop half the money.
Chicken skewers x 2 £17.90
Glass Chardonnay £7.50
Small Pellegrino £2.75