Eating Out: The best of 2022 - Waterman, Roam, Lasa, Pie Queen and Flout!
FOR the first time since 2019, I'm able to start a review of a year's eating out without having to admit to no idea what is going on and with no clue what visiting a restaurant in the next 12 months might look like.
No-one knew it at the time but that 2019 should have made the same admission, although even with hindsight it wouldn't have close to any idea of what was about to unfold.
But just because we're heading into a new year without Covid restrictions curtailing hospitality businesses doesn't mean there's not uncertainty in the air.
Concerns over the spiralling cost of living, and for restaurants the cost of working, have replaced Covid and the need to keep it in check. Keeping the lights on, the fridges humming and the stoves burning continues to be the latest challenge for an industry well used to them but justifiably sick of them.
In conditions like this, opening a restaurant is a singularly brave decision to make, even for the most seasoned of industry veterans.
Niall McKenna's reputation precedes him – how could it not with a column in The Irish News? – and Waterman, with Aaron McNeice, his former head chef at the now closed nearby Hadskis, in charge in the kitchen, made a splash as soon as it opened in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.
All it did was immediately add to McKenna's, and McNiece's, reputation. Criminally moreish fried artichokes came with cold goat's cheese, puce-pink lamb rump fell to pieces and side dish miracles were constructed from spuds, cabbage and chicken skin.
If it's daunting for someone like McKenna to open a new place, imagine opening your very first restaurant in the midst of everything that's been going on. Though it's hard to imagine doing a better job of it than Ryan Jenkins has managed with his Belfast place Roam.
After starting as a pop-up in 2018 it morphed into fancy take-home boxes during Covid restrictions and is now fully formed as a cracking addition to a city centre that needs more of this sort of thing.
If meat's your sort of thing his chicken broth will, the second it hits the table, take you to a happy place. Chicken thigh, greens, leeks and samphire bob around a soup of uncommon depth. There's kind of nothing to it, but somehow there's everything to it, and possibly the best single thing I had in any restaurant in the past year.
Husband and wife team Conor and Elizabeth Brennan planned to open Lasa, in Comber, Co Down, as a takeaway at a time when that looked like the only viable option for a food business.
But they changed their plans and took the sit-in plunge in October 2020.
The decision paid off and, along with pop-ups in, among other places, Belfast's Common Market food hall, the couple and their team have made a mark with the food of Elizabeth's native Philippines, from fried chicken with a sour citrus edge to glorious garlic fried rice and deep fried, banana and jackfruit filled pastries.
While substantial chunks of the previous two years saw Eating Out become Eating In, restaurants being open for the past 12 months has lessened the need for takeaways, but not entirely.
While the option of sitting in – or at least in close proximity – existed for both Pie Queen at Trademarket in Belfast city centre and Flout! pizza in the east of the city, goodies from both were escorted safely home for secluded enjoyment.
Shonee McWilliams runs the brilliant little pie shop, with superb, generously filled, impossible-to-fault treats. Few new year's resolutions should be pursued as diligently as finding a pie that's impossible to fault.
Just to make it easy for you, here's another one, this time a pie of the pizza variety.
At Flout! Peter Thompson makes some of the best pizza you'll find anywhere. Not just here, but there and everywhere too. Whether it's his cheese-fringed Detroit/Sicilian/New York/Heaven itself deep dish squares or the simplest thin crust pizza marinara boasting nothing but dough and tomato sauce, Flout! is incapable of disappointing. Take note 2023.
Happy New Year.