Restaurant review: Coppi in Belfast's St Anne's Square
St Anne's Square, Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 1959
Service in restaurants is viewed by too many restaurateurs as ancillary, an add-on, a gap that can be plugged. Server off sick tonight? No worries, just phone somebody to do an extra shift. Sure they'll be glad of the money.
I've seen it happen dozens of times. On the surface of it, it does seem like a rational approach. You can't call in a spare chef to stand in for the one who just called in sick with quite the same ease.
Take Coppi (where both are good). Here the famous duck ragu has become a signature dish attracting repeat custom. My sister who lives in London still raves about it and insists on a trip to Coppi when she's home. In fact, the advisor today, a man of considerable experience and impeccable taste, has also opted for the ragu on the strength of its reputation.
But before we get to the mains, let's have a look at the service. Entering the restaurant, a beautiful, modern and darkly intimate space on St Anne's Square this lunchtime, we stand near the bar for a while, unsure as to what to do. It's 12.30, one or two tables are active but the only other action we see is at the pass at the bottom end of the dining room. Soon, someone is on our case and a table is offered. But a precious moment of greeting, that welcome, the failte, the embracing warmth of arrival was missed. We get over it quickly because generously and with great consideration, the choice of a table is questioned by the restaurant manager - it's close to the toilets she warns (I hadn't noticed because it's dark). Pick another one, she says. Anyone you like.
I'm very grateful for this advice because sitting by the bogs would have annoyed me for the duration of the lunch.
There are great choices in Coppi and the distinctly Italian theme underlined by those timeless, graphic cycling references from the Fifties and Sixties, is well served with Venetian small plates, daily specials and various Mediterranean standards. There's a hard-to-go-past presto lunch featuring two courses for £14. Among the presto mains are oregano crumbed chicken with Caesar salad, squid and chorizo Panzanella salad with chilli and fennel dressing, braised beef cavatelli (pasta shells) with chestnut mushrooms, spinach and parmesan, baked polenta and pizzetta.
An aubergine parmigiana fritti nonetheless breaks through the fog of choice from the a la carte menu and I end up with a sizable dark brick of pressed aubergine encased in a chewy parmesan shell. It sort of works but doesn't have the lightness of texture or gentle, tangy, almost breathy flavours of a soft, sauteed aubergine. It's too heavy and generous in proportion although volume should always be entirely forgiveable.
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Advisor has prawn gratin with an appetising gremolata crunch and he eats it slowly because he wants to make it last, it's so good.
His duck ragu is as I remembered, rich, wintry and inviting. It reminds me of the rabbit and game sauces we had in those rustic country restaurants around Sienna on our honeymoon back in the late 1800s.
Today's special is hake with pancetta, spinach, salsa verde and crispy potatoes. The hake is a fabulously pearly white hunk with crispy silver skin and is perfectly cooked. The potatoes are undercooked. Beneath their golden fried exterior they are disappointingly hard. A second portion arrives but is no better.
But never mind because the server has had the wit to deal with it handsomely and reassuringly. Having asked if everything is OK I tell him about the spuds. He immediately apologises and offers to get a new dish. He embodies that spirit of hospitality which is about sincerity and devotion. He has both in spades and I'm grateful that he doesn't make me feel like a nuisance.
The dessert, panna cotta, is a masterpiece. Buttermilk freshness, the smell of cow parsley, light but firm texture and very little sweetness, it is a thing of great subtlety. The raspberry jus is an unnecessary distraction but it adds a sweetness which some will welcome.
Coppi is a tale of great leaps and occasional stumbles. It has proved itself as one of Belfast's best Italians. Viva Coppi and its understanding servers.
Prawn gratin £10
Duck ragu £17
Panna cotta £4