A city centre delight as Babel towers above the opposition
Cool-o-meter is set to 11 with the arrival of roof garden and bar restaurant serving top-notch posh street food at excellent prices
In tourism terms Belfast has gone from sticky-carpeted, ring of steel, smicked-out, club-land, fag butt, to hotter-than-South Beach, Michelin-starred, celestial plain of abundant joy and a hundred thousand welcomes city break destination. In less than two decades we have radically changed our tone and outlook. Would-you-drink-upnow-please! has been replaced by: would-sirprefer-the-61-or-82-Pomerol?
Even out in the country, people now remove the parka hoods from their heads before sitting down in a restaurant to eat. We’ve become much more sophisticated, knowledgeable and confident in our choices.
It will all end in tears, of course. Ability to use cutlery in the correct manner, eating with our mouths closed and not speaking with our mouths full is unsustainable. Our desire to be modern, cultured and fashionable does not sit comfortably with our baser instinct to shout rude and vulgar greetings on seeing close friends across the street, or to fight the bit out with any takers on any subject on radio phone-in programmes. But before it does all end, let’s have a look at the situation to see if we can identify where the success comes from and the causes of this success.
Okay, so I’ve had a look and I lay the blame entirely on Bill and Petra Wolsey. From pouring pints in Bangor 40 years ago to creating the current diamonds in Belfast’s tourism crown, the Wolseys have travelled a long journey. We’ve all been merrily swept up in their wake moving on from pints and vodkas and white to a new age of cocktails, the five-star comfort of opulent dining rooms and the broader acceptance of eating out frequently and going “out out” just like the grown-ups in north America and the rest of Europe.
Now the cool-o-meter has been set to 11 with the arrival of a roof garden and bar restaurant called Babel (it’s too cool for a definite article).
It is effortlessly stylish and fashionable because it looks timeless perched up there on the roof of the Bullitt Hotel. You could be walking onto the set of a Sixties, Seventies, Eighties or for that matter, just about any decade in the second half of the 20th century, to be frank. Which is why it is so welcoming and, unlike the cool places of note, unintimidating. There is a long patio of dining tables for two along the Victoria Street frontage and a wider beer and cocktail garden on the city side. But as winter settles in, it’s the restaurant and bar on the inside which will work best. There are booths and separate tables and a vertical spice and herb garden behind the bar and most importantly, well trained, youthful staff who know what they’re at and never lose sight of their duty towards hospitality. And on top of all this, the food’s not bad either. There are curious small plates and dishes plucked from traditions as varying as Korean to North African.
The menu is a list of posh street foods and not a bad or mediocre one among them. Kimchi chips (chips with fermented cabbage on top) are excellent with the whole eye-watering tangy Korean thing as expected; Keralan chicken thighs are boned (what a pleasure) and mildly but deeply spicy, sliders of slow cooked wagyu are like baby versions of the famous Barking Dog shin burger and come with more of that lovely bitter kimchi.
Sugar pit ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and sweet and accompanied by a slaw reminiscent of top quality celeriac remoulade.
The spiced prawn and mussel stew is probably what I would come back for. The comfort and warmth in it is matched by the freshness of the seafood.
And amazingly all these range in price between £6 and £7.50. You can go lower as well as higher but its good to start somewhere in the middle when you’re not sure.
Cocktails are the thing in Babel. Bar manager Frankie Cosgrove is probably the best in the game right now. You’re safe in his hands.
So it looks like the reputation of Belfast as a super cool, best in class, irresistible destination has gone up a bit even further.
The city is small enough to feel the positive impact of individual developments like Babel.
Let’s hope the Wolseys surprise us yet again. Soon.
WELCOMING: The plush interior of Babel in Belfast’s Bullitt Hotel BABEL, BULLITT HOTEL 75-81 Victoria Street, Belfast Tel: 028 9590 0600