So-so food and ser­vice is the ele­phant in the room at Ivory

Vic­to­ria Square land­mark en­joys a great lo­ca­tion and stun­ning views, but you can eat bet­ter a stone’s throw away for a frac­tion of the price

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FOOD - Joris Minne

THE IVORY Vic­to­ria Square, Belfast Tel: 028 9032 4577

The Ivory is a restau­rant perched on the top floor of Belfast’s Vic­to­ria Square shop­ping mall. It’s been there ever since the mall opened 10 years ago. It oc­cu­pies a prime site with a view. By any stan­dards, the lo­ca­tion gives the restau­rant a head start. The ad­viser and I vis­ited re­cently and, un­able to find any­one (we waited a few min­utes near the en­trance, the restau­rant was half-empty, but there seemed to be no staff around), we went to Zizzi in­stead. When you think Zizzi is go­ing to be bet­ter than some place else, you know there’s some­thing up.

This week, I made a re­turn visit with a fear­less jour­nal­ist from a sis­ter news­pa­per. This time would be dif­fer­ent. There was staff and a good few ta­bles in, too. It could be that I hadn’t paid at­ten­tion the first time I came here some years ear­lier, but I couldn’t re­ally see any dif­fer­ence in the place.

In fact, when I sat down on the edge of a ban­quette at a ta­ble for two, the in­nards of the seat ap­peared to have long since been worn down to pa­per-thin mean­ness and had lost vol­ume, mean­ing a very awk­ward reach for the cut­lery and food, which was now on a ta­ble far higher.

The Ivory has the feel and smell of one of those re­gional air­port restau­rants with mid-Nineties dark wood and faux leather up­hol­stery. You can­not find a good spot, be­cause, in fact, there is no heart in the place. It’s just a void with ta­bles and chairs and the strong, lin­ger­ing whiff of dis­in­fec­tant.

But we’re here now and the menu looks in­ter­est­ing. There are tones hint­ing at Mid­dle Eastern ex­otic, with bor­lotti bean hum­mus with harissa, dukkha, car­rots sticks and flat­bread. This is ex­cel­lent. Tex­ture and flavour of the hum­mus, in­ter­est­ingly lighter than the chick­pea ver­sion, is height­ened by the pome­gran­ate seeds and sprin­kling of dukkha.

The harissa cre­ates lit­tle dis­tur­bance. This is one of the great spices of the world, a won­der­ful pre­server and hot­ter-up­per of all things it touches. But not to­day. Which is sur­pris­ing, be­cause chef Adam Sarhan, for­merly of the Quar­ti­san, where he was cook­ing au­then­tic, fiery, beau­ti­fully bal­anced Mid­dle Eastern dishes, is now the kitchen boss. A very charm­ing server is at­ten­tive and in­formed and we both lean to­wards the North African names for a num­ber of starters, rather than any mains. There are grilled chicken skew­ers with su­mac, grilled veg­eta­bles, pome­gran­ate and za­atar-spiced creme fresh. Za­atar is the sig­na­ture flavour of Le­banon, pro­vid­ing dusty depth, heat and tone to all dishes. Su­mac is a fruit herb typ­i­cal of culinary tra­di­tions across Africa, which gives tang and bite. None of this is ev­i­dent in ei­ther of our chicken dishes. The chicken it­self has as much mois­ture as tum­ble-dried chamois and the flavours have all died some­where else.

A plate of salt and chilli prawns, on the other hand, is de­light­ful, light and burst­ing with plump and juicy flavours backed up by sparkling tomato ce­viche and wa­ter­cress and saf­fron aioli.

The prawns are proof that some­body in the kitchen knows what to do. The hand of Sarhan is ev­i­dent.

Then there is a ter­ri­bly long wait. It’s a Tues­day lunchtime: peo­ple have work to get back to, or shops to visit.

This goes beyond tol­er­a­ble and I sug­gest we pay for what we’ve had when journo nudges the server. Not sure if they had for­got­ten, or what, but the food even­tu­ally ar­rives.

It wasn’t worth the wait. A bowl of gnoc­chi with mer­guez sausage, two of my favourite things, is sup­ported in vain by some spinach (tasty), pre­served lemons (nice chew), ca­pers and ri­cotta, all fine.

But they can do noth­ing to bring back to life the taste­less and list­less mer­guez, nor the fat and greasy gnoc­chi.

We don’t stay for cof­fee as we ran out of time half-an-hour ago.

The Ivory can do bet­ter than this. It’s com­ing up to Christ­mas; they surely must have some of the best op­por­tu­ni­ties to at­tract din­ers in all day long.

But at th­ese prices, the so-so food, slow ser­vice and an unattrac­tive and dated en­vi­ron­ment, way past its de­sign sell-by date, there are far bet­ter places to drop half the money.

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