Portia Preston finally gets a table at Belfast's hottest hot spot, Howard Street. It was worth the wait.
Here's the thing about Howard St: you can hardly get a table in this restaurant. When we finally did manage to get a reservation for four people, after weeks of trying, for 5pm on a freezing January Friday, the restaurant is already buzzing with cool people looking forward to great food.
And speaking of cool people, we are shown to our table by a handsome server, and we noticed they were all cool, young and good looking, casually dressed in denim shirts, black jeans and Nike treads. F-of-H Niall Davis has a well-marshalled team here, and they know their job.
The restaurant itself has a very industrial feel, with high ceilings, big heavy doors, exposed overhead pipes and brickwork, with some unpainted walls. But what makes it work is the subdued lighting which makes the room very dramatic and exciting.
So why does everyone in Belfast want a table in Howard Street? Simple: everyone wants to eat Marty Murphy's food. And everyone is happy to pay prices that make dinner in Howard Street a steal: 3 courses of the pre-theatre menu, with a cocktail, for £25.95 is stonkingly good value.
Murphy keeps the pre-theatre menu concise, with four choices at each course. What we ate didn't put a foot wrong: a wonderful seafood chowder was just as good as a smooth chicken liver parfait, though the winner was definitely the warm salad of Young Buck blue cheese fritters, served with caramelised onion, onion jam, nut crumble and watercress. Mike Thomson's fabulous cheese has inspired Northern Ireland's chefs to create a welter of great dishes with this singular artisan food, but Marty Murphy's dish is really one of the classics.
For main courses, the 8-ounce rib-eye with beef marrow butter was described as “the most perfect steak”, whilst Mr Murphy's fine fish cookery was shown in a beautiful dish of smoked cod. The roast supreme of chicken with chunky chips has a smart curried celeriac remoulade, and it's right on the money, real Friday night food.
And the good things kept on coming with puddings: terrific whiskey creme brulée, and pitch-perfect sticky toffee bread and butter pudding with honeycomb ice cream, where Mr Murphy effectively gives you three puddings for the price of one.
The kitchen team has started 2015 in the same fashion that they powered through 2014, with a brace of new dishes already on the menu – roast hake with herb gnocchi and braised salsify; confit chicken wings with marinated feta; duck with duck fritter and pressed onion gratin.
So, any criticism? Well, it would be good if there was another loo, and we would love to see Shortcross gin used for the cocktails but, apart from that, Howard Street is pretty perfect. I can't wait to go back and bring more friends to this treasure in the heart of Belfast.