The most effective display of one-upmanship can usually be seen in the early autumn when friends and neighbours reconnect at the start of term.
At these times, talk will often turn to the holidays: where you went, what kind of accommodation did you have and was the food any good?
There is a league of class-conscious holidays into which yours must fit and, depending on the attention paid by you and by other people to your and their status, the nature of the summer holiday will provide the most precise definition of your class position — more than the kind of car you drive and certainly much more than the street you live in.
The top holiday that defines you as very classy indeed is the three weeks in the villa with pool in Italy. If you own the villa, then you’re nobility and clearly at the top of the tree. But even a rented one is enough to exude nobbiness.
The bottom of the pile is Florida — anywhere in Florida. It doesn’t matter if the one-week Florida holiday cost twice as much as three weeks in Tuscany, it’s the vacation equivalent of Geordie Shores and you are therefore a gombeen. Only kiddin’.
Interestingly, ‘staycationers’ are largely viewed in England as trendless, classless and a bit sad. Here, paradoxically, staycationers who go to, say, Donegal are usually quite classy and a bit nuts.
But the gold standard, the one component that clears a path straight to the top of the pile is the holidaymaker who can report accurately and truthfully on having discovered a hidden gem of a restaurant in what is otherwise a popular holiday destination. For those of you with friends abroad who are considering a holiday in Belfast, I have the perfect candidate: Bistro Este in east Belfast.
I have driven past Bistro Este a thousand times in the last year or two, as I work in east Belfast. Yet I had never heard of it until last week when the advisor lifted her head from the dusty Dell monitor at which she had been researching that afternoon and announced that Bistro Este looked worth a trip.
A table for four was booked that Saturday night and I was told not to forget it’s BYO and there’s no corkage charge. Happy days!
The tiny bistro kitchen and a few tables are downstairs, while up the rickety stairs is a dining room with purple walls, oil paintings of east Belfast (if you’re not fond of looking at H&W cranes, you may have a problem) and lots of people. But even though the place is tiny, it does not feel claustrophobic and there is plenty of elbow room.
The menu immediately reveals that this is no ordinary place. There are Lough Neagh eels in light tempura, there is rose veal, Japanese salad, bubble and squeak, casseroles — all intelligent choices. If you were to sit down and think hard about how you would create an Ulster bistro that pitches at the same level as a continental bistro but features its own culinary heritage, these are exactly the dishes you would include.
What’s more, chef patron David Adams knows how to do it properly. The goat’s cheese souffle is well executed. It offers up those dry, tangy goat’s cheese flavours through the lightest, airiest medium of a skilfully-made puffery. The pig trotter crubeens with homemade picallli have made their way to the advisor and knowing she’s not a huge fan of pork I hold my breath. She finds them irresistible.
The Lough Neagh eels are plentiful — posh restaurants might serve eel occasionally but you wouldn’t get an appetising big bowlful like this anywhere else. The seafood casserole — an absolute winner made of deep tomato stew packed through with squid, monkfish, prawns and mussels — is simply wonderful, fresh and invigorating.
The one starter that slips past us because there aren’t enough of us is the smoked salmon tartare with deep-fried duck egg — that will be for next time.
The chicken goujons are textbook and no child could go past them. Similarly, the rose veal is mouth-wateringly tender and tasty. (It’s always a mystery to me why veal should have more intensive flavours than adult meat.)
Adams deserves every success with the bistro, which has been in full operation for two years. It is a family business and his wife and sister ensure a smooth front-of-house operation. Even the children are involved — they helped design the banana split dessert, according to Mrs Adams!
If you’re keen to maintain your one-upmanship, Bistro Este will be unavoidable. I know it’s in the paper now and the secret is out. But act fast and you’ll be richly rewarded.
Lough Neagh eel £5.95
Seafood stew £12
Chicken with bubble & squeak £12
Children’s menu £6.95
Crème brulee £5.95
Treacle tart £5.95
Chocolate bouchon £5.95
52-54 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast BT4 3EL.
Tel: 028 9047 3670