Restaurant Review: Sole Seafood
613A Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9066 2224.
While so many other Lisburn Road restaurants have come and gone, Sole Seafood has been open for five years. So what's the secret of its success?
Neil Auterson, chef patron of Sole Seafood, doesn't understand his success. Is it the BYO policy or the reasonable prices, he asks me. I take a look around the place. One thing's for sure, it's not because of the comfort, lighting or surroundings. It's as endearing as a holding centre for recently arrived non-EU citizens. It could be something to do with the quality of the food, I suggest. And then there's Neil himself. He looks like a cross between Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper.
When I tell him the restaurant could do with a little softening (only because he asked), that it's a bit macho and canteen-like, he laughs and says he gets loads of groups of women. Oh, right.
Sole Seafood has been trading away busily on Belfast's boulevard of broken dreams for five years. In this time it has become part of the fabric and while others have come and gone, the plain little fish bistro has chugged happily along, turning out fresh fish dishes that are unlike any others in Belfast.
My co-pilot, the former commander of the fisheries protection fleet, is back in town and his love of everything scaley and from the ocean means we usually take in a seafoody kind of place.
The big hitters in Belfast, those which have helped heave the city's reputation as a culinary capital up four notches, include Mourne Seafood Bar and Deane's version. But we've also eaten very well cooked fresh fish in Howard Street, James Street South and Shu, whose shining stars have not dimmed even slightly.
Sole Seafood, however, is paradoxically more homey yet also more daring. Auterson is meticulous and everything is minutely composed yet none of it looks pretentious or gratuitously camera-ready.
The flavours and textures have all been carefully thought through and even if they don't always fit like a glove, you can see where he's going.
For instance, his whitebait is fried in a robust breadcrumb coating. This doesn't have the look of fresh whitebait: you would normally see the silvery skin through a very thin batter possibly, but the attraction is the combination of crispy exterior and soft, tangy meat. But Auterson says the whitebait can be too tangy, too acidy and that the breadcrumbs soothe the harshness. He's right, of course, but it makes for a slightly heavy starter.
Scallops with black pudding are a reinvigorated classic with added spice and sauciness. And there are other starters which prick curiosity: baked oysters with Parmesan and parsley, mussels with oysters in a bowl of creamy pesto broth, garlic white wine and cream, vindaloo sauce or cider and fennel, or chowder with oyster crackers.
There is plenty of imagination and while nothing is alien and everything is recognisable, Auterson puts a spin on things just to keep them fresh.
The fish special this evening is mackerel. I can't tire of mackerel; it's reliable, can take a bit of forgetful cooking without being ruined and has a mighty flavour. Auterson's version is filleted. What a joy. The boney framework is easily enough removed usually but when left with just the good bit, the pleasure is all the more intense. It is easily the most enjoyable mackerel I've had this year; the meat is supple, flaking and just cooked, the saltiness smoothing over the tannin-like dryness of the fish. The accompanying salad and mash are a delight.
The hake with chilli goes down with some positive comments even if the commander likes his fish plain so as to be able to appreciate the delicate flavours and better judge the timing of the cooking.
There is a rainbow of fish dishes: pan-fried hake with smoked salmon mash and salsa verde, roasted sole with cod brindade fritters and nut brown butter and shrimp, seafood risotto with gremolata and saffron among them. There is seabass, occasionally grey, lemon and Dover sole, haddock, gurnard and coley and Auterson is always on the lookout for more alternative fish. He promised to call the next time he gets some John Dory.
Sole Seafood is special because Auterson is. The small restaurant could do with a little redesign -- competition is stiff out there -- but while it stays BYO (excellent Russells off-licence a minute's walk away for those who, like me, forgot) and his cooking remains that good, this is one neighbourhood restaurant which will keep on rolling.