Restaurant and bar review: Perch, Sweet Afton, Seahorse and Ginger
In an age of shrinking concentration spans, early adopters of trends, and food fads, how do restaurants and bars keep up with the endless appetites of consumers for new things? By working in collaboration, that's how. Collective approaches by business and community leaders in Belfast have created districts, each with its own defined identity.
Cathedral Quarter is probably the best known of these districts.
Thanks to Belfast City Council and the Arts Council's insistence on building the MAC in the most dangerous and derelict part of the city centre (formerly known as the Half Bap) as a catalyst for social and economic regeneration in the area, massive investment by imaginative business people like Willie Jack and Bill Wolsey into bars, restaurants and hotels followed. The rest is cobbled history.
There are other quarters including Titanic, Gaeltacht and Queen's. The fifth one (yes, there are five quarters) is the most recently designated Linen Quarter. Harder to define than the others because of its central location largely populated by offices and businesses, the Linen Quarter is an emerging city gem which promises to see commercial and cultural development. Will this bring back a sense of identity to the area? Well, the streets here are coming down with converted former linen warehouses and factories. Just look at Ormeau Avenue and its line of early 20th century mills and textile houses, now flats and offices, named after northern counties.
The fabulous old Victorian fountain hidden in plain sight outside the BBC and named after Thomas Thompson, one of the city's great benefactors, could become a focal point for the district but Linen Quarter chief Chris McCracken has bigger plans. Half of these are about commercial and cultural investment, the other half revolve around the 40 restaurants and bars on his patch.
A recent four-stop tour on a cold Tuesday night convinced me that he's definitely on to something. A sidecar in the Perch bar on the top floor of another red brick former warehouse/mill kicks off the exploration with eye-wateringly explosive citrus acidity. If you were tired after a long day's work, this is the detonator you need to revive yourself.
Downstairs, the new culinary brains in Sweet Afton turns out to be none other than chef Dean Coppard. The food was always plain and simple in this place, but now it's wholesome, exciting and entertaining. An array of crab salad in brioche rolls, bao with kimchi and a fancy little Fivemiletown goat's cheese mousse melange with candied walnuts, red onion jam and pickled carrot with a glass of Hungarian Grune Veltliner (which should have been a lot colder), provides an appetising start.
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We then take a few steps round the corner to Grand Central Hotel where the biggest amuse-bouche you've ever seen takes us by surprise. A pasta starter by any other standard, there features a generous little portion of lobster meat in a creamy, buttery seafood sauce which I won't forget in a long time. The gremolata on top provides a third texture dimension. I'd love this as a main but settle for a plate of pan-fried halibut. Golden, crispy, pearly white inside and slippery under the fork, the halibut is perfect. Accompanied by some beautifully shaped Comber potatoes, samphire and a balanced salsa verde, it's clear that executive chef Damian Tumilty has taken the convent out of conventional and brought back a little excitement and entertainment to the hotel restaurant classics.
A final run to Ginger bistro for a flawless creme brulee is enhanced by an unexpected and, as it turns out, very appropriate vodka martini. Who says you can't have a martini after dinner?
Linen Quarter is emerging as a Cathedral Quarter for grown-ups. There are 40 quality restaurants and bars, backstreet bistros, hotels and cafes. All you have to do to find them is take your eyes off the footpath as you hurry for your bus or train and look around. More on this quarter soon.
Sidecar in the Perch ...................... £8.50
Starter in Sweet Afton ..................... £7
Halibut in Seahorse .......................... £26
Creme brulee in Ginger Bistro .......... £7
Vodka Martini ................................ £8.50
Total .................................................. £57