Restaurant Review: Queen's Quarter gastro pub a welcome addition to the club
New south Belfast venue's kitchen shows promise, but front-of-house staffing levels need urgent attention or clientele will look elsewhere
There is a lack of pubs which serve good food in Belfast. When Meghan and Harry "nipped" into the Crown Bar for lunch last month, many of us swallowed hard in disbelief.
Of all the places in the city which serve lunch so good you would recommend to any visitor, the Crown would be the last on the list. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful bar, the beers are among the best in the land and the staff are charming (well, Michael Cosgrove is). The food, however, is, in my opinion, barely edible.
There are few pubs in the city where you can enjoy a pint and/or a meal. We don't do gastro pubs as well as we do restaurants, bistros and brasseries. Exceptions include Sweet Afton, Stoker's Halt and the Albany.
However, the new House on Botanic Avenue should by right be a contender for this category. It has a bar at which you can park yourself and order a pint, or you can book a table, as I did for seven of us for lunch this week.
The interior is striking. The sheer amount of rough timber panelling and shelving, along with a big cherry tree at the bar, is almost overwhelming.
If the bar trade is showbusiness, then House is a film set. It's all very Lemony Snicket, and there is a strong whiff of steam-punk - it has that kooky Edwardian salon-cum-laboratory-cum-library sense. Fat armchairs, plenty of velvet upholstery and parquet flooring complete the eccentric vibe convincingly.
But it was also, to continue the Lemony analogy, home to a series of unfortunate long waits. I blame not the staff but the staffing. Too few people on the floor trying to do too much creates a palpable mood in any restaurant.
The staff here are very good, but too much has been asked of them and, as a result, they can't do their jobs properly. This frustrates them and us, and the experience becomes stressful.
What happens in these situations is you wait an age for things to happen, you become agitated, the server becomes wearily inhospitable and the whole thing turns sour. This didn't quite reach that point, but almost. I was determined to have a pleasant time with friends and family, but it was testing.
The simple lunch menu is standard bar food and apt. There are sandwiches, soups and sliders and a drizzle of pub food classics including fish and chips, crab claws, chicken wings and salads. And there are chips. Very good skin-on, matchstick fries.
There are some very interesting wines on the card including a Viognier from Chapoutier Mirabel, a Spanish Albarino and a Languedoc rose.
There are recognisables like prosecco at £26, and the amazingly good Ampelomeryx, all minerally and dazzling, a fabulous dry white, is also well-priced at £28 a bottle (Picpoul is listed here as an Italian wine, but ignore that because apart from anything it's too dear at £26).
There are very good finger foods: the hot wings did the rounds and more had to be ordered. And the same thing happened with the impressive chilli crab claws. Sliders of beef brisket, pulled pork and chipotle chicken were excellent with shiny, buttery brioche buns.
But perhaps the winner of the day was the House club sandwich. This classic comfort food was one of the best combinations of bacon, chicken, tomato and lettuce, and it took a while to understand what it was about it that made it so good.
We reckoned the white bread, toasted to be both crispy and soft, but with that irresistible sweet, starchy flavour, which is so bad for us, was the reason.
The House Hereford beef burger was also exceptionally good, coming with Stripey Jack cheese, Ballymaloe relish, a vast onion ring the size of a life-saving buoyancy float and those skinny fries. Also in the mix was a chipotle corn slaw, which didn't really work. You can only do so much with coleslaw before it's ruined.
The only other black mark was for the mushroom, pea and parmesan risotto, which was too thick and heavy.
It's a shame that the service was so hair-greyingly slow. Staff are critical now, and finding good people in the restaurant and bar trade is becoming increasingly difficult. House is clear evidence of this emerging crisis.
If they can sort out the numbers for the front-of-house team to match the quality of the food, it will be a winner.
House club sandwich: £7
Sliders x 3: £10
Crab claw pil pil x 3: £20
Hake and chips: £11
Burger x 2: £24
Chicken wings x 2: £14
Bottle prosecco: £26
Bottle Ampelomeryx: £28
Skinny fries x 3: £9
House salad: £3
House, Botanic Avenue, Belfast Tel: 028 9050 9800