Belfast’s churn of restaurants seems to be picking up momentum. Looking back over four years of weekly restaurant columns (that’s 208 restaurants reviewed) the most remarkable fact is that so few have fallen by the wayside.
The widely accepted view of the restaurant sector in Northern Ireland is that it remains precarious, high-risk and prone to failure. Yet, on the basis of an unscientific survey of the restaurants I’ve reviewed, only a handful has since closed.
But even those closures make room for new restaurants. Today’s Coco was formerly Roscoff, which was formerly Christie’s. Today’s Barking Dog was formerly Rain City, which was formerly Maloney’s.
Bourbon at Queen’s has taken the evolution of restaurant sites a step further by being neither related to its former namesake in Great Victoria Street nor is it on the same site.
So is Bourbon at Queen’s the return of an old favourite or is it a new restaurant?
It’s a new restaurant. The old Bourbon, now replaced by Restaurant Victoria with top chef Raymond McArdle’s name over the door, was a blousy big boudoir of a place with an even glossier upstairs. The glamour masked the so-so food, but in an odd trick of memory, the Bourbon is now remembered more fondly, possibly thanks to the blur of history created by its better quality successor. Bourbon at Queen’s appears related only by name.
Whatever. In a perfect illustration of the great circle of culinary life, Bourbon at Queen’s is the new beating heart transplanted into the former Bo Tree Thai, which was possibly the best Thai restaurant here until it closed last year. Happily, the place is even more atmospheric, appealing and accommodating than its predecessor. And that’s saying something.
The good news is: there’s no bad news. A friendly, efficient and confident server runs the front-of-house operation with only one or two colleagues, the three floors are as compelling as ever with their bare wood and robust feature staircase and, as it turns out, the prices are very reasonable. In a further expression of independence, it is almost the opposite of the old Bourbon — no flounces, chandeliers or gilted mirrors. Just a lot of bare wood and warm lighting.
Five of us made the trip there last Saturday night, only three weeks after it had opened. There were no teething problems that we could notice and the entire evening went off without mishap.
Having said that, what’s on offer is not aiming too high. The bistro-style menu keeps things simple: steamed mussels, chicken goujons, burger, rib-eye, chips and a little bit more. You don’t see pork chops on the menu too often, nor poussin, and these alone brighten up an otherwise bland list.
Yet, if the choice is ordinary enough, the food is not. My recommendation, though, is to keep away from the breads at £3.95 as these are distinctly bland to my taste, but the other starters we had were far more exciting. The steamed mussels were textbook: big fat, juicy yellow and orange purses, bursting out of the black shells and packed with briney flavours. The chicken wings went down well with the mum-in-law, although I found the sauce on them too sweet.
The pappardelle with Bolognese sauce was actually, in my belief, tagliatelle. That’s no big deal in terms of pasta differentiation, but there was something appealing about the thought of fat strips of pappardelle. Never mind. The sauce was excellent — light, tangy with back-of-the-mouth flavours and no oiliness.
Two seabasses were judged by the advisor to be perfectly cooked with plenty of moist firmness and an outstanding buttery, salty mash.
The creole pork chop looked the business: dark, vast and appetising. Unfortunately, to this reviewer, the meat had no flavour, not even in the fatty top end, nor did the creole spices that had darkened it make any impact. There ought to have been a smokey, dry heat from these spices with a hint of sweetness.
An earlier wine-tasting in the classy but democratic restaurant Canteen at the MAC had helped the advisor and I discover a Cotes du Rhone from E Guigal. Here it was on the Bourbon menu at only £23. Naturally we had to check it.
Bourbon at Queen’s does the bistro thing very well. It has been pitched at a studenty budget, yet it’s far more than that. The service is impeccable, the place is attractive and warm and the food is distinctly higher quality than the price bracket might indicate.
It’s great to see the old site come back to life with a decent offer like Bourbon’s. Give it a shot and go for that Cote du Rhone.
You’ll be glad you spent 70p today.
Crab fish cakes £4.25
Chicken wings £3.75
Chicken goujons £3.75
Seabass x 2 £25.90
Pork chop £10.25
Desserts x 3 £13.50
Cote du Rhone £23
Diet Coke x 2 £3.40
Chenin blanc glass x 3 £11.85
31 University Road, Belfast BT7 1NA.
Tel: 028 9023 9950