Restaurant review: We take a bite from Holohan's Pantry
43 University Road, Belfast. Tel 028 9543 4120
For all the talk of Belfast's rich maritime history there are remarkably few harbour-facing restaurants or bars in the city. Apart from Cutter's Wharf, which is way up river in Stranmillis, and one floating restaurant near Lanyon Place, I can't think of any bar or restaurant with a water-facing view. Ox and Tedford's may be a few yards from the banks of the Lagan, but once you're at your table you can't see the river.
For gourmand aquaphiles, Holohan's restaurant on board the old Dutch barge moored up behind the Waterfront Hall has everything. You're on the water, there are plenty of views up and down this wide bend in the river and the food's good.
Calvin Holohan (with help from his mum, brother, sister and a seemingly endless supply of willing cousins) opened the floating restaurant almost three years ago following the implementation of a business plan he put together while he was a student at the Ulster Business School.
The restaurant's success is down to a unique menu of Irish food featuring boxty at its heart. Comparable to flatbreads, or crepes, boxty is a potato and buttermilk wonder, which is nutritious, tasty and the foundation stone for any number of interpretations.
It has proven so popular that the family has gone onshore and opened a second restaurant, Holohan's Pantry.
The new restaurant is close to Queen's University and next to Villa Italia, occupying the former Drennan's. The cosy little two-storey, early-Victorian house has been adapted sympathetically and its interior eschews recent trends for post-apocalypse chic, settling instead for something more comforting.
There are touches of your granny's parlour, an old Belfast pub and the Linen Hall Library in Holohan's Pantry. The huge gilt-framed mirrors provide light and airiness in the cleverly maximised space. It's a good restaurant in which to eat alone at lunchtime. Somehow, it feels right to be here on your own with a newspaper, just as it would with friends and family.
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The simple menu reflects the proven formula from the barge. There are breakfast items here, although having tried to open at 8am and found very few takers, Holohan's now opens at 12.
Nonetheless, Irish porridge with an assortment of compotes, fruit, cinnamon and apple, brandy-soaked raisins, or whiskey and honey, sounds like a decent early lunch to me.
So do the buttermilk pancakes with whipped Young Buck blue cheese, smoked bacon and heather honey. Holohan's full Irish features beans, poached eggs, leek and herb sausage, potato farls, smoked bacon, Clonakilty black pudding and onion jam; or Leitrim boxty served with scrambled egg and chive and the option of adding smoked salmon.
Lunch proper is a short list of top Irish dishes. Calvin Holohan is an expert on Ireland's culinary history and passionate about airing its richness. His approach is meticulous, so you can be pretty certain of the authenticity of the dishes like the chowder with cod, hake, salmon and mussels; the boiled boxty dumplings served with roast squash puree, local organic vegetables and herb oil; or the braised feather-blade of beef, truffle mash and organic vegetables.
Boxty of the day is filled with a luxurious creamy mix of ham hock and mustard-seed sauce. This is warm, rich, instantly filling and very robust. The accompanying selection of heritage carrots and parsnips is nothing short of a winter sensation and the dressed green salad counters any hint of heaviness.
This is the kind of Irish cooking we don't know enough about.
I have yet to find a beer or lager with the right balance of flavours and weight to have with your lunch, but now surely is the time for a microbrewer to work with the Holohans to create one. This kind of food deserves a good chaser.
A chocolate fudge brownie with white chocolate snow and Kilbeggan whiskey ice cream is a lesson in rich textures and depths of flavours without knocking you out for the rest of the afternoon.
Holohan's is a great asset to Belfast. If you're visiting Ireland and want to taste something which belongs to much older times, but has all the appeal of modern cooking, you really couldn't go past it.
Boxty of the day £6.50
Brownie and ice cream £4.50
Sparkling water £2.20