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Restaurant review: Belfast's Howard Street Restaurant

56 Howard Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 8362

By Joris Minne ·

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Howard Street Restaurant in Belfast city centre

The mark of a good restaurant is something much more banal than brilliance, trend-setting design, or innovation. It's consistency. In a business where nothing is predictable and where so many variables can affect a day's work - staff being off at short notice, suppliers not coming through with the right orders, unexpected visits by the health and safety people and a multitude of factors to do with heating, water, furniture, electricity, gas and occasionally unannounced royal visits, walk-ins by former paramilitaries and then photographers from the Belfast Telegraph to cap it all - it's a wonder we have restaurants with any reputation for consistency at all. And yet we do.

Howard Street Restaurant has been churning out great experiences for a few years now. Chef Marty Murphy keeps pumping out those seafood dishes, impressing my friends from the Fisheries Protection fleet and flattering all sorts of diners with his wit and humour: a nice Thai red curry with that roast hake? Why the hell not?

It's not everybody's favourite, but I just keep going back for more of this - to the point where I've made a name for myself in chef Murphy's kitchen as a closed-minded cretin, incapable of reaching out further in the universe for new experiences.

But that's the point of consistency. Paul Rankin was consistent with his confit of duck, and it became a signature dish. If you were from out of town, you booked a table for that special treat of confit of duck.

For Belfast city-dwellers able to drop in any amount of times, of course, you'd quickly tire of the same dish and explore other choices. But if it's once in a while, it's what you look forward to.

If I go to Howard Street, it might be only once or twice in a year, therefore the roast hake and Thai red curry is what I want.

But consistency can apply to the more negative aspects of an operation. Take acoustics. A critical consideration for any restaurant is the light, comfort of the environment, lack of drafts and conducive acoustics. If any of those is not right, people will find somewhere more comfortable to spend their time eating.

Food and service were always good in Howard Street and, while the interior looked charming, there were flaws.

All that crumbling bare brick and moody lighting worked in certain parts of the restaurant, but not in others. You could get stuck in a strange no-man's land in the first section of the restaurant between the door and the bar and feel like you're in a Kwik Fit waiting-room.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the clash 'n' bash acoustics, wherever you sat in the restaurant, would have driven you bonkers. Until now. Because everything has been fixed. There are no bad tables and the acoustics are calming, producing a comfortingly upbeat hum.

Those strange little spaces near the front door where nobody wanted to sit have received some good design treatment, making them far more attractive and compelling. The middle of the main dining area now boasts sound-dampening banquettes and soft upholstery.

It makes a huge difference to the comfort levels and means I can bring my more mature clients and family members without fearing they might faint from decibel trauma.

As a result of these clever adjustments, Howard Street is now in my top five in Belfast as a proper, grown-up restaurant. Service was always slick and friendly, speedy, but not rushed and that food was always ultra-reliable.

But now it's got that warmth, that gentleness and a more mellow mood without losing any of its verve and vigour.

The Thai curry and hake have dropped off the menu, but instead there are exotics such as monkfish and prawn coconut curry with peanut and Thai basil pesto with jasmine rice, and robust Irish plates like slow-cooked glazed beef cheek with potato and onion gratin, broad beans, charred sweetheart cabbage and tomato vinaigrette.

The crispy pork belly is bolstered by caramelised onion mash, grilled asparagus, black pudding fritter (I'm a sucker for these little treasures - they are what makes me order a dish in the first place) and apple and cider puree. It's all delightful and there isn't a feature out of place. It's balanced in flavours and textures and generous, too.

If you have a sweet tooth, you must not go past the Eton Mess, which is like no other you have tasted. Here's a clue to how much heft it has: it has a base.

What's not to like about Howard Street now that they've sorted the room out so well?

The bill

Pork dumpling ............................... £8.50

Fishcake ......................................... £7.50

Hake x 2 .............................................. £35

Hake x 2 .............................................. £35

Eton Mess ........................................ £6.50

Double macchiato .......................... £2.75

Albarino ............................................. £31

Glass Quilmes beer ........................ £4.50

Total ............................................... £95.75

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Howard Street Restaurant in Belfast city centre