They say they ‘love to make great food for the city that loves to eat it’: Graze is a perfect example of how far Belfast has come in food terms.
Bringing a wealth of experience at some of the best hotels in the world to East Belfast’s trendy Ballyhackamore, Neil Johnston and and John Moffatt’s Graze does casual dining very, very well.
You walk straight into the restaurant off the street, but cool signage and specials blackboards on the footpath get the antennae twitching well before you enter the unassuming room that became one of the city’s most popular restaurants within just a few months of opening in November 2013.
It’s just one room but very pleasing. Predominantly grey, with wooden floors and sections of patterned ceramic tiles. The floor to ceiling window at the front makes it feel airy and the tone is casual with specials and drinks on wall-mounted blackboards, comfortable Ercol style chairs and wooden tables, soft music and lighting. It’s lovely.
Reception is very prompt and warm and the bar is gorgeous, with a great selection of drinks (they can lay claim to being one of Belfast's top cocktail bars), Ristretto coffee and Suki Tea.
Seasonality is a major theme - a blackboard listing suppliers and growers features a different farmer each month, a separate vegetarian menu is offered and they're famed for their fish. "Our approach is simple," they say, "We source directly from farmers and local growers who allow us to pay homage to the wonderful foods found in Northern Ireland." So you may expect lots of local fish, meat and vegetables perfectly cooked in a variety of imaginative offerings.
John Moffatt's short, frequently changed menus have a keen sense of place, and may include starters like Fivemiletown goat cheese fritters with beetroot, apple, chicory, walnut brittle and aged balsamic, or a Portavogie crab salad with lemon mayo, capers and sourdough.
Mains could include grilled lemon sole with Comber early potatoes, wild garlic, local greens and prawn veloute and Barbary duck breast with spring leek and Fermanagh black bacon potato cake, heritage vegetables, peas, rhubarb and wild mushrooms.
A Lazy Sunday roast dinner includes a handsome joint of meat (pork, chicken or beef sirloin) with roast potatoes, proper gravy, vegetables and a glass of red.
Desserts are as strong as the starters and a short but very well-chosen (and highly regarded) wine list offers good value, and also local beers and cider. They do Hilden, McIvor’s cider and Inishmacsaint Fermanagh beer, as well as seasonal cocktails.
Given the owners’ past experience, good service may be expected - and Neil Johnston is a natural host - but what will please you most is the excellent food and serious value for money. The Sunday sharing roast for two with 'proper gravy like your Granny makes' and a glass of wine for just £24, for example, is justifiably popular.
A treat in store when in East Belfast.