Over the last couple of months to tell you the truth my experience of dining out in my home town has been below par to say the least. I’ve been experiencing the foodie version of the dark night of the soul! Teatro was overpriced rubbish, Lost Society was style over substance and St George’s grill produced a risotto I could have plastered walls with! But recently my faith was restored in Belfast’s food offering by the Potted Hen right in the heart of the Cathedral quarter.
Sometimes restaurants appear just at the right time, in the right place and it feels like they belong immediately. The Potted Hen Bistro has been making a name for itself since opening in late 2010 and is one of a handful of restaurants carrying the torch so boldly ignited by Nick Price, all those years ago when Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter was no more than a few empty warehouses and drab windswept streets. Today the Cathedral Quarter is a buzz with activity.
Miss A and I were both thirsty so we nipped into the John Hewitt for a swift pre-dinner pint. Enjoying a Northern Irish brewed pale ale called Copperhead, then tripping off down the worn cobbled streets to the swanky Potted Hen on an unseasonably muggy but damp autumn night in Belfast.
The Potted Hen enjoys a prime location in St Anne’s square, which has hints of elegant European city charm and the exterior of the Potted Hen fits right into the classy urban surroundings. But it’s really indoors where the style gets turned up to eleven. Slate floors are combined with a dining area that is light and open, with a mix of dark wood bistro chairs and banquettes. There was a real buzz in the restaurant, with lots of lively chatter and a great view down to the busy open kitchen, which is always a reassuring sight for any diner to witness as they are seated. The staff were very welcoming, but it was the little touches such as the specials written on a miniature chalk board presented at the table, or old school tea towels wrapped around the cutlery, that made us smile. The Potted Hen manages to keep the class understated, yet assured whilst holding onto that down to earth northern local atmosphere.
As were both still thirsty for a local brew we tried some Belfast lager, then ordered a couple of glasses of the house red.
A modest á la carte menu is full of tempting dishes that highlight the Potted Hen’s food philosophy of straightforward bistro cooking served with flair, based on fresh local ingredients, with flourishes of great flavour combinations and contrasting textures that allow the main ingredient to shine.
To start I had the pan-fried mackerel with a dainty potato salad, pickled vegetables and watercress while Miss A had the shredded ham hock with broad beans and piccalilli.
The plate of mackerel was beautifully presented, it looked a treat. The fish was perfectly fresh, almost snow-white, it was so fresh, and the skin was golden and crispy. It’s such an underrated fish that looks so good on any plate, the aqua marine tiger-striped flesh is so appetising. Nice to see the Chef putting such a plentiful underrated fish on the menu in times of over fishing. The accompanying potato salad had just the right amount of texture and the pickled vegetables added the contrasting sharpness to cut through the rich mackerel. The watercress added just the right amount of fresh peppery green to lift the plate.
The shredded ham hock was another success. Again this dish looked beautiful on the plate, the ham had good deep flavour, with just the right amount of salt and the pickled yellow cauliflower had a nice bite to it, with a sharp tang of vinegar, that went so well with the salty shreds of ham, whilst the little gems of broad beans gave that added texture, sweetness and bite.
Starters were both a marked success – I could have eaten two plates of the mackerel!
For mains we went for the monkfish fritters, served with hand cut chips and freshly made tartare sauce and the roast rump of lamb with pea and pancetta gnocchi, butternut squash puree and wild mushrooms.
The monkfish was perfectly fresh presented on a rustic wooden board, and had a delicious meaty consistency, but very light. The batter was thin and crisp, allowing the fish to be gently steamed in side. But the flavour from the batter really lifted the fish, as there was a hint of curry spice, like cumin or coriander, that went so well with the meaty monkfish. The chips were crispy and were definitely hand cut as they still had the potato skins on and the tartare sauce was seasoned well, creamy and sharp. But to be honest, it wasn’t required as the fritters were so good on their own, they didn’t need anything else to go with them!
The lamb was cooked pink and blushing, it had a deep succulent flavour, beautifully tender and had that faint hint of liver that all good, well hung lamb should taste of. The gnocchi was soft, pillowy and a little doughy, very good with the rich lamb, to soak up the juices and the pancetta added a nice bit of bacon salt to the dish. The butternut squash puree was well seasoned, plenty of black pepper, but with a lovely sweetness. My only minor complaint about the dish was that there wasn’t enough jus, I could have done with a little more moisture on each piece of lamb, but this was only a very minor point. The dish was absolutely delicious, I cleaned my plate.
For dessert we had the creme brulee with shortbread and berries, and the chocolate and peanut butter semi-freddo with balsamic cherries.
The crème brulee had a crisp caramelised top, which just begged to be cracked with a spoon and underneath the cooked custard was sweet, soft, rich and heady with vanilla pod seeds. The sharp fruit compote was an excellent contrast to the custard and the shortbread, may have been a bit of an after-thought, but it was light and rich with butter.
The semi-freddo of peanut butter and dark chocolate with the balsamic soaked cherries was a revelation! The layer of bitter dark heavy chocolate was a marriage made in heaven with the strip of sweet peanut butter and the alcohol laced cherries, had a sweet tang that was beautiful with the dark chocolate. This was one of the best, most unexpected desserts I have had in a very long time. As I made my way through the semi-freddo, my taste buds were submitting to a glorious taste sensation and I’m pretty sure I had a big stupid smile across my face. We finished with two espressos that were dark as hell – the crema was thick and the flavour was strong.
The Potted Hen was a triumph as each dish delivered on flavour, but evident in the cooking is a restraint and desire not to overwhelm the palate. At its core this might be comforting bistro food, but with the contemporary classiness turned up a notch, just a hair’s breadth past the point of rustic.
My only one complaint about our Potted Hen experience is that as it was busy the kitchen didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the pace and we did have to wait a for our starters and in between courses, but I’m sure this is something that can be ironed out.
For three courses each, four drinks and two coffees the bill came to just over £70. This was excellent value, for the quality of the food, service and classy surroundings. At this rate the Potted Hen isn’t going anywhere and over the last year it has become an indispensable addition to an area of the town that is quickly becoming Belfast’s culinary mecca! Poor Michael Deanes and Paul Rankin must be feeling a bit left out! Get into the Potted Hen now to be saved!
The Potted Hen
T: 028 90 234 554