Monday’s can be tough. I’m all for easing the transition into a new week with a tasty treat, but the fact that many of the finest restaurants pencil Monday in as their weekly rest day can sometimes make this tricky. Luckily for us, a Monday trip to Belfast with this aim in mind was not to be thwarted and we were pleased to see that Lisburn Road’s Shu was ready and waiting to be tasted.
A slight trek outside of the centre of Belfast in a Victorian terrace, it would be easy to miss Shu if it weren’t for the vast array of award plaques framing the door. Shu has been awarded Best Restaurant in Northern Ireland at the National Restaurant Awards on three occasions, and these accolades certainly helped build anticipation for our lunch.
Shu is the Egyptian god of atmosphere, and although the restaurant is clearly designed in dark wood and leather to shine at the evening sitting, the lunchtime vibe was relaxed and welcoming as we were greeted by manager Julian and seated at a round table beside a beautiful arched window, true to the building’s Victorian roots. The interior is quite slick, a theme which carried through downstairs to the basement cocktail bar ShuBar – I can imagine this is a one stop shop for a chic night out in Belfast. That said, Shu appeared to attract a varied crowd, business men making the most of their lunch hour as well as older locals, who I overheard referring to the many meals they have enjoyed in Shu over the years. With a view of the semi-open kitchen across the dining room, where a cool and calm service was already underway, my attention returned to sampling Chef Brian McCann’s menu.
McCann has carved out a name for himself as one of Northern Ireland’s finest chefs, twice competing on the BBC’s Great British Menu. My first thought upon perusing his menu was just how extensive the lunchtime offering was, with an a la carte menu and a business lunch on offer – both clearly featuring exceptional value with the set business menu priced at just £13.25 for two courses. As we had a bit of time to linger over lunch we decided to opt for a la carte, a menu which detailed one amazing sounding dish after another. I always notice how a menu reads and this one was a long list of alluring temptations, a far cry from the commonly abbreviated lunch menu.
I found myself having to be ruthless narrowing down my dish choices; with my Achilles heel being Foie Gras its very mention usually makes my starter decision easy and Foie Gras and Chicken Liver Parfait with Armagh Apple and Chili Jelly (£7) was difficult to resist. The fact that another dish managed to seal the deal with me is testament to the menu’s exciting offerings as Crispy Lamb Breast, White Sprouting Broccoli, Anchovy and Parmesan (£7) drew me in.
People often don’t think of lamb as a starter option, as a rich meat with ample fat it could seem like too heavy a choice to begin a meal but this dish would dispel every one of those doubts. As the first dish I laid eyes on, a fantastic first impression was made – such a beautifully presented plate gave me a serious case of hungry eyes. Two delicate discs of perfectly crisp lamb breast were artfully arranged with shavings of moreish parmesan, vibrant sprouting broccoli and asparagus with good bite, topped with beautifully delicate purple nasturtium flowers. Rendered lamb fat is also a thing of beauty, a crackling crunch contrasting with the softly pull-able meat within. Drizzled with a deeply saline anchovy dressing, which always heightens lamb’s sweetness, this dish ticked all the boxes on the umami front, exciting the palate, somehow with every bite more enjoyable than the previous.
Although I pushed the boat out with my starter choice, I was pleased to see some lighter options like Spicy Tuna Tartare with Avocado, Radish and Avocado Oil (£7.50) on offer. Jules, my dinning companion, opted for the healthy choice of Roast Curried Cauliflower, Chickpea, Spinach and Almond Salad with Minted Yoghurt (£8), another vividly colourful dish and a summery nod to warmer climes with well-pitched Middle Eastern flavour combinations.
The cauliflower’s curried coating was flavoursome yet not overpowering or lingering, with a subtle heat countered nicely by the bed of minted yoghurt. Plump golden raisins added delicious sweetness rounding out the dish. Matchsticks of apple were perhaps unnecessary in addition to the raisins, as satisfying crunch was provided by shavings of radish and toasted almonds. All in all, this salad was a great start to the meal, refreshing, light and just enough to leave you wanting more.
Main course was again a battle of choices, with so much on offer and following a meaty start I was initially drawn to a luscious sounding vegetarian option of Crispy Globe Artichoke, Broad Beans, Asparagus, Pecorino and Truffle Emulsion (£12.50). However, picking up a subtle hint of the East with Roast Stone Bass, Jersey Royals, Peas and Sweet Tahini Dressing (£17.50) I surrendered to my love of the sesame seed paste. As beautiful as I had come to expect, this dish happily also included raw shaved fennel which, as always, worked perfectly with bass. The mark of a good fish dish for me is a crispy well seasoned skin and that was certainly delivered here. Sweet tahini dressing was as delicious as I had imagined and really elevated this simple dish, having never paired tahini with white fish before I can safely say I will do so again.
Jules was drawn to a dish that we both felt sounded delicious but worried would be too heavy for a midday meal, Braised Blade of Beef, Mushroom and Wild Garlic Crust, Potato Croquette, Roasted Shallot and Mushroom Ketchup (£18). The dish presented was far more elegant than its billing on the menu and while it was a generous portion it was meltingly tender after nine slow hours of braising. The cherry on top was a sprinkling of chunky, crisp sourdough crumbs infused with a depth of mushroom earthiness, an excellent contrast of textures to the velvety beef. The potato croquette oozed a buttery interior like a breaded pomme mousseline, with the mushroom ketchup providing a sharpness against the richness of the blade – this dish was well thought out and executed perfectly.
With an extensive wine list equipped with a wide variety of by the glass options, we were both able to pair our lunch with a fitting wine match. My stone bass was perfectly complimented by a cool Domaines des Lauriers Picpoul de Pinet (£6.75) which delivered pleasing acidity with bright citrus notes, the perfect accompaniment to a light and refreshing dish. Jules’ O’Leary Walker Blue Cutting Road Cabernet Merlot (£7.25) was a decadent companion for the blade of beef, intense with juicy tannins and a hint of spice, this was a bold mouthful to go alongside a powerfully flavoured main.
As always, being full had to take a backseat to the desire to end lunch with a sweet treat, but we had to concede our limitations after two generous courses and share a dessert. As I really enjoyed the subtle hint of Middle Eastern flavour which accompanied many of the dishes, we opted for Pistachio and Rosewater Meringue, Alphonso Mango and Lime Chantilly (£6.50). This dish was like a sophisticated Eton mess bursting with mango and lime freshness. There was a very subtle rosewater undertone, which is a huge plus for me as a heavy-handed dose of rosewater can be a real turn off. While I had hoped my beloved pistachios would have been more prominent, perhaps incorporated into the meringue, this dish was summer on a plate and we made a good dent in the large helping.
After a quick chat with Julian, who filled us in on Shu’s 2017 refurbishment plans and expansion to include a small bites offering in ShuBar, we left feeling very satisfied with our Monday treat lunch. We both noted that the calibre of food was exceptional for a lunch time service, with every dish we tried presented perfectly and for the most part offering the same dishes that appear on the main dinner menu, meaning Shu is performing at an extremely high standard around the clock. Our bill, excluding service, came to £77.20 for a decadent lunch we both enjoyed thoroughly. Brian McCann has much to be proud of and Shu should be on everyone’s radar.
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Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!