Name: Brooklyn Square
Location: 16-19 Shaftesbury Square, Belfast, BT2 7DB
Our experience: In following our mission statement – ‘discovering what’s new and good in local food’ – at times we find ourselves drawn too often to the shiny and new, like a pair of gluttonous magpies.
Sometimes to find what’s good, it pays to revisit old favourites.
In this case, one that had been around for 35 years, albeit only for one of those in its current incarnation.
For decades, Speranza was a thriving institution of the Belfast dining scene and somewhere we both had eaten with our families over the years. When we were invited along to try it, following its £150,000 overhaul , we were curious to see what had changed and not to be accused of being Brooklyn dodgers (oh dear), we gladly accepted.
On arrival, our charming hostess brought us to our table by the window, overlooking Shaftsbury Square – perfect for a pair of nosy people-watchers.
There was a good buzz about the restaurant which was well filled with a mix of couples, demob-happy colleagues unwinding after a week’s work and a large contingent of European exchange students from nearby Queen’s University.
Scanning the menu, we could see a few familiar selections, with pizzas and pasta surviving the re-brand.
Though the lure of nostalgia was strong, we opted to ignore these and go for what felt more like American diner food, starting with barbecue ribs and nachos.
The ribs, with their sweet, not-too-sticky coating, were satisfyingly meaty, the tender pork sliding easily off the bone. They were served with a slice of chili garlic bread, which was buttery and moreish.
The nachos were freshly made and came topped with a tangy salsa, cheese and a spiralised carrot salad, as well as guacamole and soured cream on the side.
The menu was enormous, often a red flag that quality will be sacrificed in favour of selection, but so far, we we were impressed.
From a huge variety of mains that included burgers, pizzas, ‘sizzlers’, pasta and steaks I plumped for the Chicken in a Basket – a mix of chicken wings, deep fried chicken strips and a roast half chicken, served with fries and sides of gravy and bbq sauce. Lynsey went for the BBQ Chicken and Pulled Pork, with corn on the cob and garlic fried potatoes.
The roast chicken was rather dry and disappointingly lacking in flavour, leaving the gravy, which was pleasingly peppery, to do the heavy lifting. The wings and strips likewise lacked in seasoning. The accompanying fries were golden and crispy and dunked in the gravy were the star of the dish. Lynsey’s chicken was much the same, but the pulled pork and garlic potatoes were very tasty and she would have enjoyed the garlic bread had I not pinched it when she wasn’t looking. The tender, charred sweetcorn was the right side of smoky without being burnt and a good combination with the saucy pork and ‘slaw.
The generously proportioned mains defeated us, so pudding wasn’t really a consideration, but had we emptier bellies, there were plenty of tempting options, not least the Nutella dough balls (at only £4 and ideal for sharing), a brownie stack and my own personal weakness – banoffee, which comes served with another favourite – honeycomb icecream.
The drinks menu, like that of the food, offered bags of choice and was well priced. Most cocktails were between £6.50 and £7 – pretty good when they use premium spirits such as Ketel One vodka, Bulleit bourbon and Tanqueray gin. Lynsey particularly enjoyed the Brooklyn Sq take on a bellini, with Ruby Blue wild blueberry liqueur taking the place of peach purée. There was also a decent range of wines, served either by the quarter bottle (a healthy glassful) or a full bottle.
We left Brooklyn Sq well fed and satisfied. Normally if we fancied a couple of post dinner drinks, we would gravitate towards the many bars of the Cathedral Quarter, but rather than trying to wrangle a cab, we decided to chance on the various hostelries nearby, many of which we hadn’t seen since we were students. We’re glad we did.
Within a few hundred yards in any direction we had: the lounge bar downstairs at Alibi, The Woodworkers, Town Square with its excellent gin bar, House, Liquor, Filthy’s…the list is endless.
Brooklyn Square’s not the only one who’s had an overhaul. Belfast’s once golden mile that had become a little tarnished has since been given a jolly good polish and now reflects a growing confidence in that part of town.
If you’re looking for a great place to kick off a fun night with friends, then give it a go.
Sometimes it pays to revisit old favourites. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Best bits: The staff were very welcoming, ready with recommendations and good craic too. The cocktail list is short but sweet, including a Ruby Blue Bellini, made with their delicious wild blueberry liqueur. It’s also well priced, with most costing £6.50 and using high quality spirits. The location is brilliant if you want to make a night of it. You’re equidistant between great bars like Town Sq, Alibi (the downstairs lounge bar is very underrated) and Liquor XXX.
Worst bits: The dry chicken and under-seasoned wings were the only disappointments in an otherwise enjoyable meal.
Atmosphere: Bright, laid-back with quirky touches.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Food hygiene rating: 5* (3 November 2016)
Price/Special offers: Students get 10% off with a valid student ID
Name: Stix & Stones at Balmoral
Location: Blacks Rd, Dunmurry, Belfast BT10 0NF
Our experience: Stix & Stones won’t break the bank, but it will surely fill you.
Shortly after its opening, we were invited to try the latest venture by the folks at Stix & Stones – a collaboration with the Balmoral Hotel. We arrived with high expectations and healthy appetites – we were not disappointed.
After the success of their first steak and seafood restaurant, on Upper Queen Street, it made perfect sense to bring that winning formula to a new audience.
Both Lynsey and I had eaten in the original restaurant, but had yet to try the pre-theatre menu.
At the keenly-priced £15.95 for two courses or £18.95 for three we wanted to know – would it be any good?
To anyone who’s a fan of the regular menu, the pre-theatre will look reassuringly familiar. The hot stone steak’s there, so too the miso glazed salmon and delicious mushroom gnocchi. The superb dessert menu remains, though a few sides such as the black rice and green beans are sacrificed.
There’s still plenty of choice though and we took our time to consider the options.
There seems to be an unwritten convention at the moment that a menu must include some form of goat’s cheese salad starter, usually with beetroot, so we were enthused to see it sharing plate space with something different – in this case, pickled pears and walnuts.
It looked great. A generous quenelle of soft goats cheese came on a crackly filo pastry bed, surrounded by dollops of sweet pear gel. The flavours all tied together nicely and the serving was just the right size. Too much of that unctuous, creamy cheese can be overwhelming.
Other options were my usual favourite, the miso-glazed salmon and a minestrone soup, but I couldn’t resist the lure of hot teriyaki chicken wings.
The crispy skin was coated in a sweet, teriyaki glaze and while I would have liked a bit more heat, they had stacks of flavour and crucially, especially if you are on a date, they came with a little finger bowl, to cleanse those sticky digits.
Onto the main course and the giddy highlight of the meal, as far as I’m concerned – the sizzling stone-cooked steaks.
Having experienced the city centre restaurant, we knew precisely what to expect but there’s something primal about the fizzing, crackling sound of the beef, rendering and searing on the hot stone as it’s carried to your table that makes you grin and go wide-eyed as it’s set in front of you.
There are other options – a yellow fin tuna steak, also served on the stone as well as a chicken supreme and gnocchi, served with a wild mushroom ragu – all fine dishes in their own right, I’m sure, but as a compulsive carnivore, there really was only one choice – I mean, look at it!
The beef is deliciously tender – having been prepared sous-vide and is clearly a high quality piece of rump.
It arrives a delightfully rosy hue – what you do with it from that point on is entirely your affair.
The steak is crowned with a slow cooked tomato and ribbons of sweet onions and pepper, as well as a meaty flat cap mushroom. With these set to one side, we could get to the business of meticulously slicing the buttery soft beef.
For anyone, myself included, who moans that their steak has been under or (usually) over-cooked, this is nirvana. A few seconds on the stone, either side, before a thorough dredging in the bearnaise or pepper sauce is all that separates you from bovine bliss.
The sides, which are included in the price, offer the choice of chips with black lard mayo and parmesan, cajun home fries, seasonal veg, mashed potatoes, a quinoa salad and pesto and cheese. Having chosen rich, substantial starters, the seasonal veg and mash may have been a better bet. As it was, the chips and home fries were tasty, but perhaps oilier and more heavily coated in cheese than our increasingly full bellies were prepared for.
When our waitress proffered the dessert menu, our first reaction was to puff out our cheeks and exhale sharply. We were both absolutely stuffed. A quick look at the offering soon changed our minds.
The excellent selection included lighter options, such as a strawberry semifreddo, a lemon posset and a white chocolate and passionfruit cheesecake. Had I not already dined so heartily, the chocolate tart with salted caramel macaron would have been an automatic choice, but the other alternative, the rice pudding with coconut sorbet and white chocolate seemed the perfect way to finish a thoroughly satisfying meal.
The rice pudding was thick, luxurious and creamy and just warm enough to slowly melt the sorbet, so that each spoonful combined that velvety, comforting stodge with cool, refreshing sweetness – quite the double act. Lynsey’s passionfruit cheesecake, topped with ripe pieces of mango, was light and pleasingly tart.
West Belfast is blessed with plenty of eateries and the appetite for eating out in Belfast is showing no signs of being satiated. What Stix & Stones does is offer something different and do it well. It would be easy for the hot stones to be a gimmicky centrepiece and to hope that would suffice. Instead, the owners have prioritised quality, from the décor to the ingredients and staff and for that they should be commended. This is the first step in Stix & Stones’ expansion. If they maintain this sort of quality, it will not be their last.
Best bits: The novelty of the sizzling, hot stones and getting to ‘cook’ your own steak makes for a fun dinner, whether with friends or a date. The beef is of a high quality, especially given the well-priced menu. It’s a very pleasant dining room – well lit, lovely furniture with high end materials. The staff are enthusiastic and helpful.
Worst bits: The home fries while tasty, were a bit too oily and overly seasoned, for our taste.
Atmosphere: Traditional, sophisticated, American-style steak-house restaurant. Lots of dark wood panelling and rich fabrics.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Food hygiene rating: 5* (Balmoral Hotel – October 2016)
Price/Special offers: Pre-theatre menu – 2 courses £15.95, 3 courses £18.95
Location: 3 Wellington street, Belfast
Our experience: Yugo (which means ‘fusion’ in Japanese) is one of my latest #foodiefinds in Belfast.
I stumbled across this cute, contemporary Asian restaurant while out shopping one Saturday for a fancy frock to wear to a friend’s wedding. Situated in Wellington Street, beside Made in Belfast, this restaurant with its large windows, pretty wooden lampshades and open kitchen certainly had me intrigued. Not wanting to wait too long to try it out, I booked a table that week for a business lunch and another a week later as a starting point for a night out with my girlfriends Jordan and Jen. Both times the food really was incredible and certainly a refreshing change from the traditional Northern Ireland menu. On my second visit I found out from our charming and fun waitress, Chloe, that Yugo had won ‘Best newcomer in Antrim’ at the Irish Restaurant Awards – no doubt the first of many accolades, should the restaurant maintain its high standard.
Both the lunchtime and dinner menu offer an array of reasonably priced dishes packed with flavour. Prices start from £2 for a portion of prawn crackers to approximately £17 for one of the ‘big’ dishes. Both times it was a challenge to choose, as everything sounded so good and it was tricky to estimate portion sizes. The waiting staff were excellent at giving direction but weren’t pushy and didn’t encourage you to over-order. On my first visit I had a bao bun (£4) and Pork Dumplings with Black Vinegar (£4) followed by the most amazing dessert of white chocolate & sesame crunch, white Chocolate cream, a citrus Beignet with fresh blueberries and passion Fruit (£6). I had never tried bao bread before, but tasting this steamed, yeast-based bread with its doughy delightfulness made me want to try making my own. However, Kirsty’s starter was like a piece of art on a plate – her fresh sushi looked incredible. Apparently it was the best she had tasted in Belfast!
On my second visit, we decided to set a budget of how much we each wanted to spend (£20pp) so with a total of £60 we ordered as much food as we could and included the following: Curried Cauliflower Beignets, Lentils, Coconut & Cumin (£6); “Belfast chicken curry” w Peas, Onions, Mushrooms (£12); Szechuan Braised Lamb Shoulder, Quinoa, Yogurt & Rosewater Vinaigrette (£16); Hand Cut Chips with Togarashi Seasoning (£4); two BBQ Pork Bao buns with Spring Onion, Pineapple & Coriander (£4).
The girls and I loved everything we ate that night but we all agreed that the stand-out dish was the braised lamb shoulder – incredible – not only was it the prettiest dish, decorated with bright red pomegranates, but the depth of flavour and tenderness of the meat was mouthwatering.
Even after scoffing all that, I couldn’t resist the lure of the white chocolate crunch dessert (again). I must confess, while Jordan tried to regale us with stories of her summer holiday in Vietnam, as she sipped an iced coffee with Kahlua, Tequila, 5 spice & condensed milk (£6) Jen and I struggled to concentrate, we were too busy devouring our dessert!
With the limited seating available this is not the kind of restaurant where you can linger for an evening. Luckily there are a plethora of nearby bars and venues to carry on the party. That night, the girls and I headed for cocktails at the newly opened Tipsy Bird bar in Ann Street.
Best bits: Cool menu offering something that is a bit different. Make sure you try the braised lamb!
Worst bits: Some items on the menu could do with a description (which would have saved us plaguing poor Chloe, our wonderful waitress, with questions!). The stool seating is a bit uncomfortable but it’s the kind of restaurant you get and go – yugo!
Facebook: Yugo Belfast
Atmosphere: Simple minimalist décor. Busy, but the buzz makes it exciting to dine it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Food hygiene rating: 5 (28th Feb 2017)
Price/Special offers: Daily specials
Location: 451 Ormeau Road, Belfast, BT7 3GQ
Our experience: We held our first Down the Hatch NI event here in December 2016 (which you can read about on our blog!). The venue was perfectly pitched for our charity can drive as the ethos underlying this bar is about creating a beer community. From sourcing financial support through crowdfunding, to the 20ft beer table at the heart of the bar and a lot of board games to play the emphasis is as strongly on community as it is on beer.
This innovative microbrewery makes use of a digital app to control the brewing process enabling craft brewers to perfect their product. Brewbot is Northern Ireland’s first micro-brewery producing beers on –site for you try. The range of uniquely crafted brews is what sets this bar apart from others. Some beers we tried on the night included: Kinnegar ‘Scraggy Bay’, Galway Bay ‘Stormy Port’, Brewbot Red IPA and Boundary Brewing Rowlock.
The most popular beer on the night was the Galway Bay stout “Stormy Port” which was paired with some Young Buck from Mikes Fancy Cheese in Newtownards.
Best bits: Good selection of craft beers with unusual flavours. Cool atmosphere – loved the big sharing table.
Worst bits: Some of the beers are quite pricy but then again they are of a good quality. Difficult to get parked near the venue. Can be a bit chilly.
Service quality: The barmen were cool, relaxed and knowledgeable about the beers.
Opening hours: Bar Hours: Mon-Sun: 1pm-Late
Atmosphere: Chilled hipster hangout
Rating: 4 out of 5
Cuisine: Bar snacks available like Pop Notch!
Food hygiene rating: 2 out of 5 (Feb 2016)
Price/Special offers: Beers range from £3 – £6