My visits to Belfast have been all too fleeting. Last summer it was a quick overnight stop for the Grand Gelinez! Shuffle in Ox, a kind of fine dining musical chairs, where you do not quite know who will be in the kitchen and what you’ll be eating, but the promise is that it will be very good.
This time it’s a lunch stop on the way back from Derry, on a day when the weather is just plain showing off and a top-down drive along the deserted Antrim coast feels like the best-kept secret in the country.
Waterman, in Belfast’s buzzy Cathedral Quarter, is the new restaurant from Niall McKenna, the chef behind James Street South and the recently closed Hadskis. The 50-seater is in a Grade B listed building, a former Bushmills bonded warehouse, and the large windows look into the loveliest of light-filled rooms, which is surprisingly full for a sunny day. Hard surfaces and high ceilings mean the acoustics are a bit brash, but somehow it doesn’t matter because our banquette by the window is suitably comfortable, and the room feels stylish and fresh.
It is with some delight that I discover that as well as an a la carte, there’s a lunch menu with just one choice for starters and mains, grilled broccoli followed by hanger steak, and cheese to finish. It is €21.95 (£18.50) for two courses and €26.69 (£22.50) for three which looks like extraordinarily good value. We immediately choose to have the first two options and intersperse it with three small plates and a dessert from the a la carte menu. I explain to our waiter that we will be sharing each dish, and ask for each of them to be brought separately, not all together. He’s Italian and can see the logic in my slightly awkward request.
The hanger steak from the set menu turns out to be the perfect large dish to share to finish our savoury courses
Service is very polished — a carafe of water is brought to the table and an array of cutlery is laid out by our crisp linen napkins for each of the dishes to follow. The wine list cleverly offers options by three glass sizes for quite a few of the bottles, the pricing is equitably proportional, and there is plenty that is affordable.
It would be good to see a few more edgy low intervention producers added to the rows of bottles on the open shelving of the very smart bar, as the style of the menu is very much along the natural wine bar lines and it’s something I’d expect to see. The barman chills our wine glasses with ice before pouring a Horner Pinot Gris, €10.67 (£9) for a 175ml glass, and a Cecilia Beretta Brognoligo Soave, €9.49 (£8) for a 175ml glass. Clearly, it’s a room of very experienced staff.
The grilled broccoli from the lunch menu is a sizeable starter, charred and doused with a seaweed pesto which is lifted with a hint of mint and scattered with toasted pine nuts. From the small plates menu, grilled scallions are sweet and warm, served with a cool quenelle of goat’s cheese and Romesco sauce (€8.89/£7.50).
We follow with two small pasta dishes (they’re also available as larger plates). A tangle of linguine in a broth with mussels and small langoustines (€11.27/£9.50) is given additional layers of flavour with samphire and purple dulse seaweed. It is judiciously seasoned, rounded out with a nice touch of butter. Ravioli, perhaps a shade firm, is filled with ricotta and nduja (€8.90/£7.50), topped with nduja crumb and peas, all sitting in a buttery puddle flecked with dill.
The chatter around the relaxed room would indicate that I’m not the only one enjoying the vibe
The hanger steak from the set menu turns out to be the perfect large dish to share to finish our savoury courses. Sliced, to show off its rare interior, it comes with beetroot and white radish in an intensely beefy jus.
For dessert, baked Alaska (€8.90/£7.50) is suitably refreshing. It’s a dessert that is having a bit of a renaissance, and here, there’s a little puréed rhubarb sitting under the cake to add tartness, swirled with a light, not too sugary meringue, to encase the cold ice-cream.
Lunch at Waterman is an absolute delight. The small-plate format with carefully chosen, seasonally led dishes makes for a very convivial dining experience, and the chatter around the relaxed room would indicate that I’m not the only one enjoying the vibe. Lunch feels like a holiday escape during the day, and I’ve no doubt that it is equally buzzy in the evening.
Lunch for two with two glasses of wine plus 10 per cent service charge was £74.20 (€87.50).
THE VERDICT: Polished service and delicious food in a great room
Music: Gilberto Gil and cool lounge music
Food provenance: Peter Hannan, Lisdergan, Dryane’s Farm, Ewing’s, La Rousse
Vegetarian options: Very good, grilled scallions, pea arancini, cavolo nero pasta and herb gnocchi. All in-house made pasta is vegan.
Wheelchair access: Accessible, with accessible toilet