Who’d have thought that the East Belfast suburbs of Belmont and Ballyhackamore would ever be in a position to claim rights as the new up and coming foodie spot on the outskirts of the city? I can say that because I grew up in this part of town, and fond memories of eating out in the east are few. Although as a 10-year-old it was hard to say no to a special fried rice, with an egg on top, followed by a bowl of jelly and ice-cream at the Eda Inn Chinese on the Belmont Road. A cheeseburger from Nibblers came a close second.
But then things began to happen, notably a high-end fine dining restaurant opened in the middle of Ballyhackamore called Aldens and it was here that I had one of my most memorable meals from my formative years. Aldens was probably the first restaurant over this side of town to offer something really special that customers were happy to splash out for. So of course I was sad to hear of its closing, but excited to learn that the Aldens team were going to try something more suited to these leaner times.
Aldens has made way for Neill’s Hill Cafe and Brasserie. In theory it ticks all the right boxes – a toned down brasserie ‘New York style’ grill and seafood menu, cocktails, craft beers, an extensive wine list and a trendy new interior.
The revamp has gone down the popular route of re-claimed furniture, with a bit of shabby chic thrown in. Think dressers and sideboards you might have seen in your Granny’s house, retro light fittings, a ramshackle collection of chairs, tables, random framed pictures and a sparkly new bar.
The space is open and bright with large street side windows giving a good view to all the goings on in the village. However I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the interior was trying too hard to emulate the look of other restaurants in the locale. It all felt a bit too polished and lacking character, like an off the shelf, self-assembly Ikea showroom for the restaurant trade.
The menu is an ‘on trend’ mix of bistro and grill style dishes – starters, small tapas style plates, steaks, seafood, roast chicken, salads, and larger dishes, with a brunch menu at the weekend. The specials board had a selection of fish, but it was disappointing to see the usual suspects of salmon and sea bass on the menu. I’m sick and tired of seeing these two fish on every menu in Belfast! It would be so refreshing to see some lesser known species of fish on menus, rather than the safe option all the time. It’s not like it’s ever wild salmon or sea bass, farmed every time. What about Gurnard, Mackerel, or Pollack?
I was also a bit disappointed to see a lack of detail on the menu about where the meat, fish or veg comes from – no mention of farmers, producers, fishing harbours?
We ordered a bottle of Hilden’s Belfast Blonde and an Anchor Steam beer, only to be told after the drinks had been ordered that the Belfast Blonde hadn’t been put in the fridge and was warm, so we went for a second bottle of Anchor Steam beer.
We studied the menu, settled on our choices and made ready to order. Now this may have only been early teething problems, but quite a number of dishes we wanted were not available, and a number of times the waiting staff had to dash into the kitchen to enquire on the status of said dishes.
It would have been nice to have been informed of the dishes that were off, right from the moment we sat down. There’s nothing worse than choosing a dish only to be told it’s not on, it throws you off course. But after a few false starts we were good to go.
To start we had the scallops and the lamb koftas with tzatziki. Three scallops were presented in the half shell, dusted with gremolata breadcrumbs, sitting in a deep puddle of melted garlic herb butter. The scallops were cooked very well, ever so slightly rare in the middle, with a little bit of caramelisation on either side, and were very fresh and sweet. But the dish could have done with a little salt, a few grains on top of each juicy scallop and this would have been a perfect starter. The breadcrumbs didn’t add anything to the dish, they were under seasoned and so was the garlic butter. I was a bit taken a back on the price, £7.50 seemed a bit excessive for three small scallops, four larger scallops would have been better!
The lamb koftas came as three small plump meaty sausages on wooden skewers, served with fresh tzatziki. The koftas had a good flavour, with a nice hint of cumin and spice coming through, but again they tasted under seasoned and they were over cooked so were dry and chewy, rather than being tender and juicy. The tzatziki tasted flat and lacking in salt and pepper.
For mains we had the half roast chicken with lemon, thyme and rosemary, with a portion of fries served in the ‘on trend’ bucket and the fish special of Hake served on a Spanish style bean stew.
The chicken was well beyond roasted, it was incinerated. The skin was black in parts and the flesh had no moisture left in it. The breast was dry and tough, and even the leg meat was dried out, with very little flavour left in the meat from the over cooking. There was a slight hint of lemon, but nothing was going to bring this poor bird back from the brink. This dish was made all the more unpalatable when we realised the price of £13.50! For half an incinerated chicken! We could have bought a really nice free range or organic whole chicken for that price! It’s not a good sign when a restaurant can’t even produce a good roast chicken?! The fries were a let down too, they were pale, limp, under cooked and soggy.
And while I’m in rant mode, it’s one of my pet hates when a restaurant can’t even put together a simple garnish of salad. The Chef simply threw a handful of undressed watercress onto the plate as a complete after thought, might as well not have bothered. Would it really have been too much effort to make a good side garnish to go with the chicken? It just seemed a bit lazy.
The Hake was fresh and cooked well, yielding soft and juicy flakes of white fish, but the skin of the fish had been partly burnt. I like the skin on my fish crispy and golden but not burnt! The fish was served on top of a stew of beans in a tomato sauce. However the stew tasted flat, lacked seasoning and was far too sweet. It actually tasted like there had been a lot of tomato ketchup added to the sauce. I wasn’t sure about the slick of reduced sticky sweet balsamic on the side, which just made the beans even sweeter and more cloying.
So the starters had been average, the mains not great and I was losing hope for dessert. Tentatively we ordered the brownie, only to be told the brownie was off? So really what you’re saying is that the Chef couldn’t be arsed to make any brownies? I mean come on, brownies must be one of the most popular dessert items on a menu. It was a Saturday lunchtime and no brownies?
The holes in the menu were just getting irritating now. Is there actually anything on this menu that is available to eat or is the menu just a broad suggestion of what might be available generally for the next year or so? I just want to know what’s on today, while I’m here, trying to have something to eat, based on the menu presented before me?! To be given a poor excuse by waiting staff of ‘sorry we’re in between menus at the moment.’ What does that mean? Lack of organisation?
OK, so instead of the brownie we had the rhubarb crumble and the creme brulee.
Thanks be to jaysus the desserts were actually very good. The creme brulee had a nice caramelised crunchy top which I cracked open with my spoon, the set custard underneath was rich, sweet and full of vanilla seeds. The crumble was good too, lots of sweet acidic fruit, with a light dusting of crumble mixture, served with a small jug of freshly made custard. Thank God the pastry Chef knows what they’re doing!
Neill’s Hill just weren’t on top of their game the day we visited for lunch. The food was well below average with quite a few amateurish errors such as lack of seasoning and food being overcooked and burnt. I’m probably going to get a roasting from the anti-salt brigade, but surely the most important rule a chef lives by is the ability to taste their food and season appropriately. I don’t really want to go to a restaurant where I have to season my own food. The dish should be seasoned perfectly before it gets to my table, is that not what we pay for when we go to eat out in a good restaurant?
The menu issue with a number of items not being available was irritating and just gave me the impression that the restaurant was operating well below its potential.
Unfortunately the shadow of Aldens will always be present in Neill’s Hill, but with such strong pedigree and experience, I really expected more from this new venture.
What’s the litmus test? If a meal out doesn’t make me smile, then what’s the point? Neill’s Hill didn’t put a smile on my face. My overriding feeling was that they were trying too hard to be on trend, with a lack of focus on the food coming out of the kitchen, resulting in a ‘middle of the road’ restaurant, that isn’t sure of itself yet.
I so wanted my lunch at Neill’s Hill to be a success and I hope they up their game, because when you’ve got close neighbours of Il Pirata and Bennetts who have raised the bar considerably for informal local neighbourhood dining, mediocrity will become obvious very quickly, once the newly opened buzz has lost its fizz.
Total price came to £67 for three courses each, three beers, one glass of wine and two coffees.
Neill’s Hill Cafe and Brasserie
229 Upper Newtownards Road
Belfast BT4 3JF
T: 028 9065 0079