Restaurant review: Quartisan, Belfast - Jewel of the Nile brings taste of souk to Cathedral Quarter
Quartisan, Belfast: Close your eyes while in this rebooted city centre eaterie and you could be in downtown Cairo, so authentic are the aromas and flavours of the Levant
As summer approaches and thoughts turn to sun, sea and sand, our attention is drawn to the marvels of the Mediterranean diet. All those tomatoes, olives and fish dishes are proven to help millions of people who live along the shores of the Med to keep running marathons until they're a couple of hundred years old.
Unlike us. We will not live until we are 100 never mind 200 in the northern, colder climate. We will have given up the ghost much earlier, our arteries clogged, our sofas littered with blankets, empty beer cans and takeaway polystyrene boxes, the remote control worn out and the heating on in August. It's just our bad luck to be here. But, thanks to some restaurants in Belfast, we can actually get a taste of the meridional life.
Take the new Quartisan in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. The menu reads like a classic, quality north African neighbourhood brasserie crossed with a good French restaurant. Honestly, you could be in Algeria, or Morocco. Or Egypt, as chef Adam Sarhan draws on family provenance to create dishes which would pass muster anywhere in Marrakesh, Algiers or Cairo.
The restaurant is a modern, big place, with booths along the side walls and tables populating the middle. Its bright, warm and compelling atmosphere is the kind you'd find not in north Africa, but rather in any main European capital.
Owner Eamon Blaney says the original Quartisan, which featured a deli and diner, didn't quite work out, so he went down the more conventional route and opened a more traditional restaurant instead.
But this is no ordinary restaurant. Thanks to chef Sarhan, there are dishes here which will make me want to go back again and again.
His stuffed vine leaves come with rice, okra, tomato and cucumber, creating an instant trip to the eastern Med. The vine leaves are stuffed before baking, so that the finished article is a wonderfully textured and tasty mouthful.
We had these with a lemony chermoula salad, featuring chickpeas and saffron creme fraiche. This may look very simple and a bit rustic, but it is breathtaking and memorable.
Gambas pilpil are generous and arrive in a shallow terracotta pot, all tomato and chilli and deep flavours of fenugreek and Baharat spices. Nothing oily about this dish, either. A crab linguine starter for the brother, something I would normally avoid, is quite simply outstanding, the pasta light and flexible, the crab flavours mixing beautifully with the well-judged chilli, it is still making my mouth water as I write.
Chargrilled squid with chilli garlic oil and borlotti beans continue the journey through the souks and bazaars, with the odours and flavours bursting through like sunshine. This is bound to become a classic, the brother suggests, until his seafood casserole arrives, which is equally enchanting.
There is polenta cake, all deep yellow and crumbly, served with orange confit and vanilla ice cream and home-made sorbets of blackberry and raspberry to complete the evening.
This is possibly the most understated restaurant in Belfast. The quality of the food will impress the most cynical competitors and it strikes the right tone at the right price to make it worth a repeat visit.
There are some very minor vulnerable spots. The cracked potatoes disappoint, because they're too soft and still in their skins, rather than bashed about, as expected.
The accompanying focaccia is either over-toasted, or roasted, and has lost its texture and the strawberry cheesecake has great textures, but little flavour. These are very small complaints.
Quartisan is a fabulous addition to the Cathedral Quarter, which now boasts the kind of restaurants we expect to see in capital cities.
Buba on St Anne's Square does an excellent version of middle eastern cuisine. Quartisan takes it a step further and, while the influences are distinctly north African, it offers a degree of comfort you expect from much more expensive places.
And think of how much longer you'll live on this diet.
Crab linguine: £5
Seafood casserole: £16
Salsa verde: £1
Polenta cake: £5.50
Bottle Soalheiro: £26.50
Quartisan. 23-27 Waring Street, Belfast. Tel: 07843 058888