Restaurant Review: Coco reinvents itself to compete with the best
On a freezing cold Monday lunchtime this Belfast city centre restaurant puts a warm glow in our reviewer's heart and makes his 'must visit' list
It's been six years since I was in CoCo, the Linenhall Street restaurant owned by talented fireball Jason More. He wasn't too happy with the last review and took me to task about it a few months later when we bumped into each other. More recently, I bumped into some of his very charming staff at an event in Dublin. They suggested a return visit would reveal much improvement and new thinking.
So here I am on a cold and charmless Monday lunchtime. Thankfully I am in good company after work mate Claire agreed to take on spad duties for today.
It's Baltic outside and CoCo's warm embrace is welcome. No draughts or chilly corners here. Big booths, gold leafed, 18th century Italian circus-style art work and low lighting makes the place instantly intimate. There's a fair sprinkling of weekend survivors in for some fortification and all is well.
It's a very odd time of the week to go out for lunch but there's something soothing and stabilising about a clean, white, cotton table cloth and a decent list of wines by the glass.
Also reassuring is the immediacy of things in CoCo. There is someone there to greet you, menus are quickly distributed, an assumption has been made that it's a school day therefore you'll be wanting to eat and go pretty swiftly.
But not so abruptly that you couldn't enjoy a glass of German pinot noir, the likes of which I have paid three times the price in posher palaces.
This is what the CoCo team recommends: a Peth Werth pinot noir which at £7.75 a shot is remarkable. It tastes like a 20-year-old Nuit St Georges, darkly subtle, meaty, with a tiny hint of salt.
The same team recommends one or two items and it dawns on me that there is fresh vigour in CoCo, a new mood, a sense of competitiveness. On closer inspection it turns out that celebrated chef Paul Waterworth is in the kitchen.
The charming staff I met the previous week? That would be Abby Dunlop. Dunlop and Waterworth are behind the greatest renaissance of any restaurant I have witnessed in Belfast. Frankly, they are the dream team.
The combination of front of house hospitality and attentiveness (she is not alone - stalwart head of service Rory is there too) and bullet-proof quality from the kitchen, is a new and unexpected force. CoCo is back.
And they've got that lunchtime thing running as smoothly as any Parisian city centre brasserie.
No rush, but no hanging around either - they know you've got to be back at work, but you're paying so you set the pace.
A baked beetroot starter and an apple and blue cheese salad are ample, crunchy and mushy in the right places, the spectrum of flavours entirely explored from sweet and tangy fruit to bitter soft penicillium and added salty crispiness from a slice or two of melba toast.
A magret of mallard, fondant potatoes, porcini, date and red wine jus and some cavolo nero with a generous dollop of parsnip cream is flawless. Winter flavours and textures are all there, bountiful, complete and exciting. It's as good as you will find anywhere.
The monkfish is plentiful and the pasta has good flavour although perhaps not the squid ink depths we had expected. It's honest to goodness fine and right for the price.
The warm pave of chocolate with peanut brittle and banana ice cream is memorable and comes to an end far too soon.
The emphasis on timing in CoCo is evident through the express menu. There are four dishes to choose from the express mains including salt and chilli venison, seafood risotto, that nice monkfish and seafood linguini.
The menu changes every day. Give it a rattle.
CoCo has reinvented itself. Dunlop and Waterworth have created a restaurant which competes head on in terms of quality of food and service with Love Fish, Meat Locker and James Street. Seriously.
Salads x 2: £10
Glass pinot noir: £7.75
Glass Chenin blanc: £5.50
Coffee x2: £5
Sparkling water: £3.95