Deanes at Queens has come some distance since it was reviewed in these pages almost three years ago.
At the time, it was hanging on to the coattails of Michael Deane’s more glamorous sister restaurants in the city centre. Their reputations were strong — the main restaurant in Howard Street still held a Michelin star and the Deli and Café du Vin were all-day attractions.
Meanwhile, Deanes at Queens served up decent bistro food in airport lounge comfort but somehow couldn’t quite match the occasional brilliance of the cooking in Howard Street or the high-ceilinged, boho trendiness of the Bedford Street operations.
A recent return en famille, with the added reinforcement of one extra hungry teenager, has overturned this verdict.
You might think a quiet evening between Christmas and New Year is not the ideal time to raise hopes of finding classy food — surely even restaurant staff have to slow down along with the rest of us? — but you’d be mistaken. The professional never drops his or her guard, no matter what time of the year it is.
And nowhere is this more true than in Deanes at Queens. While the style of service can be slightly stilted — it veers from the comic antics of one server to the mildly bored insouciance of the other — the food in every manifestation was top class, delicious, entertaining and beyond expectation.
Fishcakes — notorious now in many Belfast restaurants for being misrepresented potato croquettes, such is the negative fish-to-mash ratio — have to be ordered as part of an ongoing investigation. You can no longer rely on them to be what they say they are. At Deanes at Queens, however, their reputation is intact. Packed within a generous crispy breadcrumb ball, smoked haddock and leeks outgun the potato content and provide comfort, warmth and wintry flavour, perked up with a tangy tartare sauce.
The teenagers’ Parma ham salads were big and blousy with lots of quality ham, crescents of dark roasted beetroot, green leaves and a snowfall of shaved parmesan and balsamic vinegar. A munchy big healthy pile of fine ingredients is the last thing you’d expect to appeal to a pair of 15-year-olds, yet this went down very happily with the colas.
There seems to be a holy trinity at the top of the salt and chilli squid league of providers. Cayenne, Ginger and a tiny takeaway on the Saintfield Road called The Silk are my current top three. The advisor’s squid starter, however, has resulted in Deanes at Queens version shouldering its way onto this exclusive list. There’s only so much you can do with something simple but once you’ve experienced poor versions of salt and chilli squid only then do you realise it’s about timing and quality ingredients. In this case, the squid — juicy, tender and full of flavour — married well with the pale salty and crunchy coating and was outstanding.
Starters are often my favourite part of the meal — they seem to be more carefully made and have more intensity of flavour. As they are the bridge between hunger and feeding, they have the added advantage of coming first, when the appetite is keen. The mains face a harder battle to maintain your interest.
But in this case the mains were, without exception, just as exciting. Pork belly, as ubiquitous these days as steak or chicken, was served as a generous thick roll of perfectly golden, shredding meat and marrow-like fat.
The pork belly was accompanied by a sizeable cylinder of potato gratin. A few minutes longer in the oven might have taken the very slight crunch out of the potato slices but it was otherwise excellent — moist, creamy and mildly perfumed with some nutmeg. There was a celeriac and apple in cider mash too but it was the intriguing ball of light stuffing — all porky flavours with hints of spice, herbs and sausage — which made it exceptional.
The burger in Deanes is a vast, charred, crumbly affair served with great regular-size chips. It does what it’s meant to do.
Other mains, including children’s chicken goujons for £6 (fresh, well-made and no processed dinosaur shapes here) were up to scratch and proof that the kitchen quality switch is set to 100%.
My raspberry panna cotta with Eton mess was all I needed to confirm this. Chef Chris Fearon has huge talent and has been acknowledged by judges far better qualified than me. If this kind of quality is consistent, then Deanes at Queens faces a very happy New Year.
Parma salad x 2 £14
Pork belly £14
Children’s goujons £6
Rigatoni x 2 £24
Panna cotta £6
Ice cream x 3 £15
Glass La Grille £6
Glass Malbec x 2 £12.50
Hildon water £3.50
Cokes x 3 £6
Service charge £14.05
1 College Gardens, Belfast BT9 6BQ
Tel: 028 9038 2111