Hooked on fish? Not quite

This Belfast restau­rant has many of the in­gre­di­ents needed to be a suc­cess but needs to im­prove the qual­ity of its food

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD - Joris Minne SALT BISTRO, ST ANNE’S SQUARE, BELFAST TEL: 028 9023 8012

Restau­rants come in three cat­e­gories. Re­gard­less of price range or star-rat­ing restau­rants can be classed un­der the three head­ings: “De­serves to suc­ceed”, “Should be placed on life sup­port”, or “Avoid”. A restau­rant which de­serves to suc­ceed is the one which un­hesi­tat­ingly comes to mind when the ad­viser sug­gests go­ing out for lunch or din­ner.

My go-to happy places in these sit­u­a­tions range from Kur­rito on Botanic Av­enue to James Street South, the Meat Locker and Mud­dler’s Club. OX, Nu Delhi, La Ta­que­ria and Ma­cau are also in this sea­son’s premier divi­sion.

Restau­rants which should be on life sup­port are those which are al­most good but which are fail­ing on one of three points: en­vi­ron­ment, ser­vice or food. For in­stance, The Vestry café which is housed in the same for­mer church as the top class Sa­phyre, is in­con­sis­tent on ser­vice and food. My mother-in-law swears by it and loves it but the ad­viser has had her ups and downs in the place. A bit of tight­en­ing up on train­ing and qual­ity pro­duce would quickly straighten this out.

Places to avoid in­clude a world fa­mous Belfast city cen­tre bar (The Crown Liquor Saloon) where I’ve en­dured the worst food in Belfast. It’s ap­pear­ance on these pages has been un­happy. Para­dox­i­cally, it’s also one of the places to en­joy the best pints you can get in the city.

Some restau­rants fall be­tween these cat­e­gories.

These are the restau­rants which you re­ally hope and wish will be good, but man­age to dis­ap­point nonethe­less. The jug­gling act nec­es­sary to en­sure a good restau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence (and I stress that this ap­plies to fast food joints as clearly as it does to Miche­lin-starred brasseries) re­quires man­agers and staff to make the place com­fort­able and free of draughts with good light­ing, ex­cel­lent, friendly servers and good food. If you have all three, you will suc­ceed no mat­ter where the lo­ca­tion is. For Salt Bistro in Belfast, two out of three is not enough. It’s a pleas­ant restau­rant to sit in and the front of house peo­ple are charm­ing, youth­ful and help­ful. But the food is not up to the job. This is a restau­rant which qual­i­fies for life sup­port be­cause it’s worth sav­ing. The lo­ca­tion is great and you get the feel­ing that if the chef would just stop over­cook­ing fish, that it would be a very good lit­tle place to go be­fore see­ing a show at the MAC next door. I re­cently went with the sea cap­tain whose for­mer life in the fish­eries pro­tec­tion fleet means he knows a thing or two about fish. Had­dock fish cakes had a fair ra­tio of fish to potato and the bite of the chilli within was wel­come, even if the cap­tain, a man more in tune with sim­ple and straight­for­ward flavours, fears a lit­tle heat. Mus­sels were over­cooked and head­ing towards shriv­elled but the fact that there were so few of them any­way meant that this was largely for­get­table.

Plaice for both of us pro­vided the ev­i­dence to de­ter­mine that both dishes of the dried­out filets were over­cooked. If one had been bet­ter cooked, then we could over­look the over­cook­ing of the other as an ac­ci­dent. Dipped in a soft bread­crumb coat­ing, the filets just couldn’t sur­vive the time in the pan. Con­versely, the crushed pota­toes be­neath were de­light­fully moist and rich, but­tery and ro­bustly tasty. There was an odd flavour from the ac­com­pa­ny­ing green beans and I couldn’t put my fin­ger on whether they had suf­fered from burnt but­ter or some other un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent.

When the dishes were be­ing cleared, the server asked if ev­ery­thing was OK. We an­swered to say that the fish had been over­cooked but that see­ing as we were hun­gry we ate most of it any­way. He said he was grate­ful for the com­ment and would let the chef know. That’s not re­ally good enough if you’re run­ning a good restau­rant. If the com­plaint is rea­son­able, then surely the point is to try to get these pun­ters back and re­move the of­fend­ing items from the bill.

Salt Bistro is the kind of restau­rant I re­ally wish would de­liver. Its sea­side feel, its cur­rent BYO sit­u­a­tion and the in­ti­macy of the place means one re­ally wants to stay on and en­joy the evening there.

Un­for­tu­nately, the poor food has been a re­cur­ring theme over the past three or four vis­its and I see no im­prove­ment.

PLEAS­ANT VENUE: the in­te­rior of Salt Bistro

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