Restaurant review: The Chelsea
346 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9068 7177
Some restaurants are destinations in their own right. People will fly from Belfast to Heathrow after booking a table in the Fat Duck, not too far from the airport, just to experience the full Heston Blumenthal magic. Others will go the 600 miles to Cornwall for the sensational dishes of Nathan Outlaw and Rick Stein.
And it happens across more modest distances here, too. I know many people who go to Portrush just to queue to get into the Ramore, the Harbour Bar, or the other restaurants in George McAlpine's portfolio.
As a food lover, I understand this desire, hunger and thirst to taste and enjoy the food of highly recommended restaurants. London is now the best place in the world to eat out, so I always have a freshly updated list of restaurants to visit.
But this does not mean that restaurants which are more neighbourhood, more modest in outlook and generally more suited to informality and casual comfort can't be good, too.
It's rare that a neighbourhood restaurant becomes internationally acclaimed, or even talked about outside of the vicinity it serves, but it used to happen a lot. It's what food critics always looked for.
We would refer to these places as hidden jewels, off-the-beaten-track wonders, sensational backstreet marvels which would knock anything else for six.
Apart from a few roadside vendors in Portugal, Spain and Italy, I can honestly say that I haven't discovered any such secret surprises anywhere. Perhaps this is more to do with the fact that they are, as I've stated, largely for neighbourhoods and locals.
The Chelsea on the Lisburn Road in Belfast has been fulfilling this role for some decades now. It would never have been a priority listing for me, but a recent visit revealed something much more than ordinary going on there.
It's a tough call. You've got that golf club/Lisburn and Malone Road set to cater for, which means you can't scare your local trade by being too adventurous.
By and large, a decent steak and chips would keep them happy.
Yet the Chelsea has upped its game a good bit and puts scallops, fresh monkfish and other less conventional offerings on the menu.
Some of it is good and some is excellent. Take the vegetarian options. There is one. A vegetable fajita. But the server is quick to offer alternative other vegetarian meals. In the end the veggie among the five of us remarks on the quality of the stir-fried and spiced vegetables she received for her fajitas.
I dip in and the flavours are hot and Cajun; plentiful and beautifully fried until a bit charred, yet still crunchy. Some great judgment was needed to get that just right.
The special of the day is monkfish with jasmine rice and Thai curry. A glistening white brick of perfectly pan-fried monkfish, golden, salted and crispy on one side is not overcooked - the first time I've had a decently cooked monkfish in ages, as this tends to be over-done.
A seafood linguine is so titanic in proportion, half would have done. It nonetheless gets nods of approval for content of salmon and hake as well as prawns and other bits and pieces in a rich armoricaine sauce.
The service is unhurried, attentive and robust. This is a pub and there are loads of people at the bar watching the football. Yet it's civilised enough to pass for a very comfortable restaurant, thanks to the swanky soft club chairs which are not so low you can't eat at the table comfortably.
The food is better than your average pub food, and if it's volume you need, the Chelsea will deliver. Also, there is none of the feared golf club dominance here.
It's a very democratic bar with all sorts of young folk, families and a wide cross-section of well-behaved drinkers and diners.
You're in good company.
Squid x 2 £13.90
Starter platter £12.95
Goats cheese £7.95
Seafood tagliatelle x 2 £31.90
Veg fajitas £14.95
Monkfish x 2 £39.90
Parmesan chips £4
Apple crumble £5.50
Panna cotta £5.50
Mineral water x 2£7.20
Bottle Albarinho £20