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Restaurant review: The Jailhouse - joy to find real pub hidden in plain sight

Joy's Entry, High Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9032 6711

By Joris Minne ·

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The restaurant part of the Jailhouse

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The two people behind Belfast's greatest competing entertainment empires, both on top of their game, each with a brilliant eye for branding, were bound to come together at some point to create the city's latest phenomenon: a bar and restaurant like no other, hidden away in one of Belfast's most ancient arteries, Joy's Entry.

Mark Beirne and Jim Conlon are the architects of Belfast's most popular venues.

Jim brought us the Pizza Co, the Chip Company and the Devenish, while Mark has given us Filthy McNasty's, the Albany, Sweet Afton and plenty others.

Both are young, smart and successful (and married to two other success stories, the sisters who own one of Lisburn Road's top fashion stores, Harrison.)

The thing with successful people is that they just keep getting more successful. Which is why the Jailhouse, the first collaborative Conlon/Beirne venture is a certainty to succeed. The vastness and robustness of Henry's Bar, the way the quaint framed pictures of olde Belfast are bolted to the walls and the wood panelling reminiscent of old hoof-proof enclosures at livestock auction houses, hint at the volumes of customers expected to flock through the doors.

Yet Henry's and the Jailhouse restaurant are a cut above. Staff are watchful, charming and fast on their feet. They fire out just the right levels of banter asserting their authority as robustly as their friendliness. This is a no-nonsense approach to hospitality, one which says trouble-makers will not be tolerated, but that they're delighted to serve those who are on best behaviour.

This week I have appointed my friend, author and journalist Jane Hardy to the role of adviser. She is a seasoned luncher and reviews restaurants for other publications and is the ideal candidate for the post.

We find each other, eventually, in the restaurant. The complex runs almost the entire length of Joy's Entry and is effectively invisible from the street until you step through one of the doors along the single mule-wide alley.

Once inside, you marvel at the sheer scale of the place. Henry's Bar is a huge, high-ceilinged temple with touches of steam-punk eccentricity and Victorian-to-Edwardian architectural references and pillars.

On the floor are very comfortable banquettes arranged into cosy booth-like spaces. It is warmly lit and there are battalions of servers to ensure you don't stand there with both arms the same length for too long.

A door at the back of the lounge leads into the Jailhouse restaurant. Here, the ceiling is low and there are long tables, high tops and loads of rustic, almost agricultural wood panelling. Walking through this, past another bar, brings you into an atmospheric outside area where smokers can enjoy the fresh diesel fumes wafting in from nearby High Street.

Back inside, there are masses of exposed beams and restored floors and upstairs cosy corners and a sort of VIP area which you can foresee will be in much demand in the winter months. The restoration of the building's many components is as good as we've seen from Bill Wolsey. It is so stripped back, some of it looks like a fine art installation.

Meanwhile, half a dozen chilled oysters are served along with a bottle of cheap but decent rose, a blend from Provence (La Batisse, £18). Not a hint of grit or sand in the oysters, beautifully simple on little aluminium trays of crushed ice, they are good value at £2 a pop. I should have asked for a pint of stout to go with them. About 30 years ago, there was only one place in Belfast you could get stout and oysters, the Crown Bar. The Jailhouse experience is poised to shoulder the Crown out of position as the must-visit Belfast bar to enjoy the perfect stout 'n' oysters moment.

A leg and breast of chicken on a bed of risotto featuring chorizo is a joy - luscious, rich, filling and delicious. The chicken skin is crispy, salty and addictive.

The adviser is having fish and chips. She's had better. The fish is grand, moist, flaky and encased in a quality, brittle batter. But the chips are al dente, undercooked. This is a crime against humanity coming from the man who created the Chip Co where chips are invariably perfect.

But, look: the place is just open. There is time for things to settle down and bed in. Beirne and Conlon are masters at this.

The culinary experience has the potential to be good enough (once they get the chips sorted) to win prizes in a pub-grub category.

What matters here is the comfort, the way the beers are kept and how decent the wine list is. I foresee long, pleasant evenings at one of those banquettes and tables re-acquainting myself with the traditions of a proper Belfast pub.

The bill

Six oysters...........................................£12

Soup..................................................£4.50

Risotto............................................£10.95

Risotto............................................£10.95

Fish and chips................................£12.95

Lemon tart.......................................£5.50

Cheesecake......................................£5.50

Bottle La Batisse................................£18

Total:..............................................£69.40

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The restaurant part of the Jailhouse