Rhubarb: The pre-theatre menu gets star billing, but it’s the superb risotto that steals the show
If it's something down a side-street and a bit naughty you're after, step this way. On the corner of Hope Street and Little Victoria Street, next to the Reptile Shop and two doors down from Ginger, a very small cafe called Rhubarb (not the one in Wellington Place) lies in wait. Ideally, you should come here after dark to get the full urban tension blue mood thing, although you'll get a flavour of the tantalising taste of sin at lunchtime, too.
Run by mild-mannered and talented chef patron Norman Green, the BYO, cash-only cafe (the credit card machine is on the blink and not due to be functioning again until mid-September) hides a seriously good restaurant where fish is fresh and cooked with religious respect, risottos are perfectly consistent and the service is platinum-plated.
I had been a few times over the years, but a recent chance encounter in the street with Norman rekindled an appetite for back-to-basics bistro brilliance, which is Rhubarb's unique selling-point.
If it looks like a modest city caff, with its plastic upholstered banquette at the back and little booths — most of the floorspace seems to be taken up by the kitchen — then be grateful, because, like caffs of old, it is comfortable and warm. What's more, the lighting, intimacy and sanctuary-like calm make it instantly familiar and welcoming.
There was a particularly beautiful crowd in one night last week when I brought along my friend Captain John from Portsmouth. A regular visitor to Belfast, who makes an occasional appearance on these pages as stand-in to the true advisor, the captain's expertise is fish, he having commanded a fisheries fleet protection squadron off the west coast of Ireland and as far north as Iceland in his career at sea.
So far, John's happy places in Belfast include Howard Street Restaurant, Mourne Seafood Bar and Ox. All three, he says, know how to cook fish. He also includes Sole Seafood and Deanes Seafood Bar in this list, so I was curious to see what his reaction would be to little Rhubarb.
Having prepped him with a bottle of Ostatu white Rioja from Direct Wine Shipments, we were steered towards the pre-theatre menu (two courses for £14.95, or three for £17.95) and kicked off with a warm salad of pork, pears, roasted walnuts and leaves.
The citrus dressing provided the sharpness to counter-balance the finely sliced, salty, crispy pork belly. Nuts are infinitely preferable when roasted and the walnuts did the job of providing texture and a touch of brittle and crunchy bitterness. This was lush, salty and so good I slowed down the munching to make it last.
The pre-theatre choice is far from mean, or restricted. There are wild mushroom risotto cakes with red onion jam, leaves and parmesan, slow roasted beef, wilted greens, buttery mash and wild mushroom sauce, burger with cheese and bacon, hand-cut chips and dip, honey and soy-glazed pork ribs, bok choi and sauteed potatoes, or roast chicken breast with chorizo, peas, watercress and those sauteed spuds.
On top of this in the dim recess of the cafe is a blackboard and among the three offers was hake and risotto. A large brick of hake with a dusting of gremolata topped the risotto. The white glistening curved chunks of hake fell with barely any effort from the knife and had all the moist, briney flavours of the sea and the slight tang of fresh fish.
The lightness of the hake and the heavier risotto beneath worked beautifully together. Risottos are divisive. One man's overcooked risotto is another man's perfect dish and the captain noted that his was perfectly textured, moist, and not even slightly runny. It's hard to find a risotto to please everybody, but Rhubarb's is the answer.
The restaurant had filled up by this stage and there were high spirits and a mood of joy and devil-may-care, yet the noise was subdued and never once became distracting, or a nuisance.
An apple and rhubarb crumble came with a layer of crushed oaty crumbs and hazelnuts and the sweetness of the fruit was welcome.
A short walk from the Grand Opera House, those pre-theatre deals must be doing a good turn. But don't wait until you've booked to see a show. Rhubarb is a little show in itself.
Two course £14.95
Three course £17.95
Sparkling water (x 2) £2.60