Some perfectly ordinary sites in the city become so familiar — cranes, hotels, playing fields, police stations, car dealerships, Spars — that within a few months or years they blend into a kind of urban backdrop we no longer notice.
Somewhere at the back of our minds, we know they’re there, but usually we don’t recognise them until they’re gone. Like the public toilets that used to sit in the middle of the road outside City Hall in Belfast or the Crown Bar. (Only kidding about the Crown, but you know what I mean.)
L’Etoile restaurant on the Ormeau Road is like that. L’Etoile, a French restaurant which seems to have been there, hidden behind those awful net curtains and cheap signage for an eternity, never appeared to be open. Yet there it was. Unmovable, never changing and always showing the hallmarks of an early dereliction.
It certainly held no attraction to anyone walking past it. There used to be a place just as unprepossessing in Madrid called the Aviator’s Club. But if you pushed the shabby door beside the boarded up shop window and went in you discovered something entirely different. An exciting bar with music, loads of cool people and tapas and it opened all night.
L’Etoile may not open all night and it may not have the same excitement, but behind the door is a restaurant with proper tables and chairs, some pictures on the walls and menus. The taxi driver said the place looked like an entry with wallpaper. He wasn’t far wrong, but it’s definitely not the derelict place the exterior might indicate.
In fact, it’s a lively little neighbourhood restaurant with a clever menu, the kind you’d actually see in a Paris banlieue. And it’s BYO. This is significant to first-time visitors (as I was) because down the road on the same side of the street is the very good Vineyard off-licence. There are wines here from the Var and lesser-profiled wine areas of France and you’ll find something special in there to give your dinner a bit of class.
But class is already in evidence in the service. I’m meeting a friend whose culinary talents are very developed and whose idea it was to come here. The woman of the house is French and bustles through the tightly arranged tables to show us to a corner with plenty of room. We’ve a bottle of Bordeaux each and these are quickly opened and returned with glasses. No messing.
I look around to see if the taxi man was right. He was, but it does have much more charm and atmosphere than he’s letting on. The place is cosy, dark but not uncomfortably so, and most tables on this week night are filled with happy, hushed conversations. That’s the magic of these places, nobody feels they have to shout as they might in a brighter, harsher environment.
The menus are tatty, ancient documents which look like they’re from the Seventies, held together by plastic binders, but the content soon shines through. Pigeon breast for starters while Bordeaux Joe goes with the grilled mussels.
I’m a bit disappointed with the pigeon. There’s little gamey flavour, although the tough texture you’d expect is there. But it’s the red wine and onion sauce that does for it. It’s not bad, just not very tasty. The accompanying salad and its Caesar-style dressing is, by contrast, very good and brings the thing to life a bit more.
The grilled mussels on the half shell are going down well. They’ve got plenty of salty, seaside flavour and presence, which makes up for the pretty small number of them making an appearance tonight.
Both of us go for the special of the day, lamb rack. Now L’Etoile changes gear entirely and a very generous main of six little ribs appears on each plate. They are cooked pink and Bordeaux Joe notes that that the older we get, the less inclined we are to go for rare-cooked meats. We study our lamb rack and are both very satisfied that they suit our age-range — pink, but not bloody.
The meat is tender, the juices of the fat are bursting with that deep, back-of-the-throat flavour that only lamb generates. The little accompanying mousseline plays a good second fiddle to create a classic French dish, although I’d love to see some flageolet beans instead. Nonetheless, this is magnificent.
Another feature of the Seventies, and definitely not French, is an accompanying dish of “the day’s vegertables” — carrots, cauliflower, runner beans etc. They’re ok.
We bow out on crème brulee and crepes and both do the job well. The crème brulee is faultlessly cooked with perfect texture.
Don’t judge a book on its appearance? L’Etoile proves this can also apply to restaurants.
Starters x 2 £11.50
Lamb rack x 2 £29.90
Desserts x 2 £8.50
Sparkling water £2.50
Corkage x 2 bottles £3.60
407 Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 3GP.
Tel: 028 9020 1300