Michael Deane used to refer to it as “the shrine”, but Paul Rankin’s Cayenne came under the most unholy media scrutiny following its shock rating in the latest round of food hygiene standards certifications.
Not since Meath-man Richard Corrigan appeared on the Great British Menu representing Northern Ireland has the north’s culinary community been in such a tizz. Apart from anything, Cayenne’s low score of one star — meaning something had to be done very quickly to improve things — prompted some gleeful, hand-rubbing schadenfreude.
Yet with great panache and defiance the restaurant was open the day after the announcement and 70 people had their dinner there. The day I went for lunch, a further 60 had booked for that evening.
Didn’t anybody give a toss about the rating, then, I asked the Cayenne Maitre d’? “Er no, not that we know of,” he hesitated. “Oh, there was one caller who said he was reconsidering his next booking, and he had dined with us for the first time the previous week.”
So what exactly did Cayenne manager Peter McKenna think was the reason for the poor score. “Low, ropey ceiling, cracked tiles on the floor and some structural stuff which needed sorting,” he said. “The corrective work was completed within four weeks of the inspection and the inspectors said they were hugely impressed with our rapid response.”
Ok, but how impressive was the lunch? At £15.50 for three courses, diners can’t be choosers, or so you’d think. Yet Cayenne’s lunchtime choice of one, two or three courses for £8.50, £12.50 or £15.50 turns out to be a rich and varied list that contains all the signature dishes with which Paul Rankin established his international reputation.
For starters there are Thai spiced fish cakes, salt and chilli squid, spring ham and pea soup, salad of crispy duck and Ryefield goats’ cheese and potato puff pizza. But look more carefully at the offer — the soup, for instance comes with a ham hock and black pudding croquette and confit egg yolk, the duck salad with mango, ginger, chilli and peanuts.
Among the mains are chargrilled rump of beef with fries and chorizo butter, stir-fried squid, poached lemon sole with Jersey royals, celery and caper nage, duck leg with carrot and ginger puree and Indian spiced potato cake. The list goes on and it’s all seductive.
The squid starter has been on the menu for years and I’ve had it a dozen times. Today’s is as fine as it always was, although the hand of chef Paul Waterson is perhaps a bit too easy with the overpowering coriander and salt. The squid itself is beautifully fresh and the coating is crispy and golden.
The goats’ cheese pizza base is a little biscuity in places but otherwise my fellow journeyman is happy — especially as the nice £17 Stump Jump Australian riesling is perfect with the dry cheese.
The poached lemon sole dish arrives in a beautiful composition of white and green. The sole fillets are rolled up and held by a string of steamed spinach, there are big green beans and capers in the nage (and more of the coriander) and the peeled Jersey royals look like they have disintegrated. To this palate the dish is overcooked by a few minutes and the three generous fillets have suffered a bit. The Jerseys have collapsed through water saturation, yet the overall flavours remain strong.
Journeyman’s pork belly with its new-season cauliflower puree and pickle, tamarind and five spice sauce, is spot on. The pork is exploding with taste, its many textures soft, crispy, chewy and melting. He’s delighted with it and can’t believe it’s £8.50. Just before the desserts we share a side order of wok-fried noodles — these remain the best in the city, better than any Chinese has to offer right now.
A pair of chocolate fondants are chosen from a list that includes summer fruit crumble with lemon ice cream, buttermilk pannacotta with strawberry and rosewater syrup, ice creams and passionfruit crème brûlée.
They are a triumph. Both brittle and crackly on the outside, giving way to a soft rich layer beneath and finally to the rich chocolate yolk at the heart, which bleeds out slowly and voluptuously.
Cayenne can still hack it even when Paul Rankin isn’t in the kitchen. While he would never have allowed the lemon sole to go over, what was served was more than acceptable, especially at these prices.
The aftershock of the food ratings revelations were still being felt when this review was compiled, but a word of warning to those who hold to these rigidly. When Belfast City Council ran its excellent Scores on the Doors, everybody knew how the scoring was arrived at. The new scheme does’t allow this kind of easy access.
There are reports of restaurants receiving star ratings in this round who cannot recall being inspected. One restaurateur in central Belfast was awarded four stars and says no inspector went near her kitchen. She felt she deserved five and wants to know how arbitrary the marking is.
Diners and food consumers need the reassurance of a reliable inspection system. In the meantime, it’s a comforting thought that no Belfast restaurant has been closed down through food scares in the last ten years at least.
Three courses x 2 £31
Wok-fried noodles £3.75
Stump Jump £17
7 Ascot House, Shaftesbury Square,
Belfast BT2 7DB. Tel: 028 9033 1532