Belfast is the bistro capital of Ireland. The city now boasts an enviable bijou bistro sector which includes seafood specialists, grill bars and diners.
It is a peculiar development which has grown in reaction to the kind of people we are — modest, simple and humble.
People who eat out here do not wish to be seen to be flash and even when we’re trying desperately to look as hair-shirted as a Vincentian priest, the very fact that we eat out in anything other than a drive-thru can provoke suspicion and sniffy comments.
This explains why the bistro has found its niche in Belfast, providing unselfconscious, seemingly modest but quality dining experiences. The name itself (“bistro” is a Russian term for “quick”, adopted by Parisians 150 years ago) infers simplicity, economy and the type of food that busy but self-effacing people ingest to keep themselves fuelled up.
Ten years ago Belfast had three Michelin-starred restaurants. The star was awarded on the basis of impeccable décor, linen, formality, adherence to precise rules about food, environment and service and Roscoff, Deanes and Shanks all puckered up and did the job maintaining terribly high standards and, consequently, a star each was awarded to them consistently for some years.
Eventually the three restaurants stopped trying so hard and soon Belfast was left without a single Michelin star. This marked the rise of the bistro.
It’s been a wonderful development for the city because in that decade since losing the Michelin stars we’ve seen the arrival of the Mourne Seafood Bar, James St South Bar and Grill, Deanes Deli, Molly’s Yard, Barking Dog, Neill’s Hill, Bistro Este and many more, all serving up well prepared, exciting and locally sourced food. Not only has this made Belfast all the more attractive for its citizens and visitors, it has had a sizeable impact on the economy, creating jobs and revenue and a real sense of maturing societal progress.
But for some of us this slide represents a descent into vulgarity, lobster-and-chips, cold beer and first-name terms. It is a signal of worse things to come. We can see in Belfast the first few pages of the next culinary chapter which is entitled Dirty Food. I love the burrito bars like Boojum, Mex and Amigos and the street-style burgers of Rocket and Relish or the Bubbacue smoked meat sandwiches but for many, this is restaurantageddon. It’s food with no cutlery, lunch in a bag, drinking out of jam jars. It’s the new chippy.
Nonetheless, there are still some outposts of old-fashioned fine dining where sanctuary lies. One is Deanes on Howard Street. Deanes held on to its Michelin star for 13 years right up until 2010. And it still feels like it still
has one. The atmosphere is hushed, the linen folds as sharp-edged as knives, the service polished and discreet.
In Deanes on a Saturday night, the occasional outbursts of laughter from the adviser (she just loves my wit) were the only sounds to punctuate the otherwise polite hum in the busy room. This must have helped people relax a bit more because by the time we were leaving, the place was as noisy as the Empire on comedy night.
We went ultra formal with Deanes’ six-course tasting menu. And so began an evening of class with a bit of pomp and ceremony. Introductions of each course with accompanying wine were discreet and informative. The arrival of each dish was done with just enough reverence as to create a sense of occasion. We kicked off with a perfectly pan-fried single scallop with slightly fibrous samphire and pancetta bits (after a delightful opening amuse-gueule of vegetable broth — confirmation that bistro food is king, even when in a place like Deanes). Then came the foie gras and brioche, both melting in the mouth and full of deep, rich flavours. The fillet of sea bass was another masterclass. Buttery, firm, glistening and moist with a paper-crispy skin, the sea bass was textbook good. The pace was relaxed and spot on, with a good rare-cooked steak coming at the right time, and like each other dish, preceded by generous glasses of matched wines.
Fine dining has come some way in Belfast. It’s more rarified but we’re no longer intimidated. This is the measure of a society at ease with itself. No matter what the flags protesters say or do.
Tasting menus with wine x 2 £170
(Tasting menus without wine x 2 £110)
Total (incl service charge) £187
36-40 Howard Street Belfast BT1 6PF.
Tel: 028 9033 1134