Eating Out: Niall McKenna still setting the standard with new restaurant Waterman
5-23 Hill Street,
028 9043 4310
WHEN I started writing about my dinner on this page a little under six years ago I went through old copies of the paper to compile a list of the restaurants reviewed in the couple of years previous, just to make sure there wouldn't be any unnecessary repeats.
As I flicked through the pages I also came to the conclusion that reviewing any restaurants to do with Niall McKenna, whose recipe column has been overlooking the restaurant review long before I got here, may not be the best idea.
The simplest outcome would be if it doesn't turn out to be great. Taking up space to aim shots at a fellow contributor is not a good look, so any review of a disappointing meal could simply never appear. Like it didn't happen.
But if it was good, which McKenna and the reputation of his places at James Street South and Hadskis down the years clearly pointed towards, you would be stuck wondering how to get that across without it looking like a put-up job.
Fantastic, memorable, well worth every penny. Is he still there looking over my shoulder across the page?
No matter how much you protest (up to a couple of hundred words at this point) the reader might not be able to shake the feeling that something wasn't on the level. I know I wouldn't.
So, to avoid even the slightest suggestion of impropriety, I thought it best to avoid them completely. The wife's Caesar salad must be above suspicion and all that.
But some things make too much noise to be avoided, and so we come to Waterman, opened by McKenna, former Hadskis head chef Aaron McNeice taking charge in the kitchen.
It's in the middle of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, named after the Waterman building which also houses McKenna's cookery school.
It's a splashy, confident opening at a time when the hospitality industry needs all the positive news it can get.
And it just so happens to be very, very good.
The space feels huge, partly because it is pretty big, but also because it's pretty bare. It has white walls with a couple of plain canvases, simple tables and chairs and a tiled floor, with big windows looking out onto a bustling Hill Street.
McKenna himself is floating around the dining room, sanitising tables, opening a window as the summer heat builds a little. It may be an indication of the staffing headaches so many restaurants are facing – although if it is it's the only visible one; the servers were impeccable in efficiency, knowledge and generally adding to the experience. Maybe he just can't stand round without getting involved.
It's a modern European bistro, which a heavy lean towards the Mediterranean, particularly Italy.
You could munch through the fried artichokes forever, using them to scoop up the cold goats cheese with a slick of truffle oil.
Cured sea trout is pert and just firm enough, with thin disks of apple and kohlrabi that are sweet and bitter, with a purée of gooseberry sourness and the crunch of hazelnuts.
A piece of lamb blushes pink, the rump honest-to-God melting with barely a chew. Courgettes come both as roasted batons and a tangle of 'spaghetti', which when used instead of the real thing in some carb-free delusion is pointless but here, as actual veg, is lovely, with everything benefiting from the zap of yogurt and mint.
A piece of cod falls away among bright pieces of tomato and a thumpy caponata of aubergine.
The sides are probably unnecessary but thankfully ordered. Confit potatoes, thin slices reformed into cubes, golden from their fatty cooking bath. As good a thing as you'll find any restaurant anywhere does to a spud.
Wedges of hispi cabbage, come with chimichurri and a blanket of crispy little bits of chicken skin. Way more than side dishes should ever promise or deliver.
Desserts are creamy, tasty things with deep, dark, chocolate ganache coming with a foamy peanut cream, nutty ice cream and brûléed bananas, and a fragrant lemon posset, with a disc of sharp rhubarb jelly and a little shortcake biscuit.
All of that means that it's the easiest thing in the world to repeat, without fear or favour, that Waterman is indeed very, very good.
Fantastic, memorable, well worth every penny.
And if you don't believe me, go and try it for yourself.
Bread and butter £4.50
Sea trout £9.50
Fried artichoke £8.50
Lamb rump £22.50
Confit potatoes £4.50
Hispi cabbage £4.50
Chocolate and peanut £7.50
Lemon posset £7
Berry appealing mocktail x2 £11.90
Italian Sour £9.75
Naked & Famous £9.75
Service charge £12.14