What is happening to east Belfast? First there was the Park Avenue Hotel and its massive upgrade in recent years, then there was Alden's followed by Bennett's and Gourmet Burger Bank. Now there's another fancy but cheap eatery just off the Newtownards Road called Café Rouge.
East Belfast is coming into its own and showing the first signs of visible and positive post-Troubles transformation. Unlike the rest of the city, the east is composed of proper little town centres: Bloomfield, Strandtown, Ballyhackamore. Even the Woodstock and Cregagh areas have emerged as attractive and bustling little town centres. Bloomfield still leads the way for boutique fashion stores (how did that ever come about?) but the culinary buzz is strictly confined to sister neighbourhoods Ballyhackamore and Strandtown.
Café Rouge is one of the those places that is so self-consciously modern — all sharp edges, different wall papers and dark corners — that you feel you've entered a trendy home interiors store rather than a restaurant. And there is nothing outmoded about the food either.
There is no craziness on the menu, just plain English descriptions of the kind of dishes this new generation of trendy young things from east Belfast is after. Remember, this is close to the Paisleys' family home and you'll remember big Ian recently talking up Northern Ireland produce as the best in the world — this from a man who likes his fry to be Ulster and his stew to be, well, Irish.
What he may not be aware of is the tough job Northern Ireland chefs had until recently in weaning us away from stew and Ulster fries to new tastes and sensations. Thanks to generations of abysmal catering when few of us dared complain — remember all those awful hotel restaurants and second rate Chineses we used to tolerate? — we were among the last in Europe to cop onto the fact that food is sexy, uplifting and a vital component in our pursuit of happiness.
Café Rouge is one of those places tapping nervously into a traditionally very conservative local market but which is doing so with some flair. You will find soup of the day with wheaten bread, Walter Ewing's smoked salmon on toasted muffin and horseradish crème fraiche and Cumberland sausages with mash and crispy onion rings. But they are well made, carefully presented and lovingly delivered. You get the clear impression that these might be plain old dishes but they are treated with the respect reserved for senior statesmen and women, those among us who have made great contributions to society (and haven't sausages and mash cheered us all up during those grey winter days?).
On the menu you will also find appetisingly familiar but more daring creations such as seafood spaghetti with peas, broadbeans and parsley, which my bad-tempered companion ordered. She was, within minutes of starting her meal, transformed into a happy creature, distracted and then delighted to put something in her mouth which tasted so fine.
I had chicken and chorizo risotto with soft herbs. You may get tired of risotto, especially as every restaurant seems to make one these days, but I have yet to get bored by a good one. This one was good. The clash of soft and gentle mushy rice with the zing of the chorizo pieces within made for a very warming and satisfying experience. It's not great art but it does the job.
A Caesar salad is described in the menu as coming with black olives and shaved parmesan. To describe a Caesar as served with parmesan is like a new car brochure that says the vehicle comes with four wheels. Let's not beat about the bush here. Chefs do not have an inalienable right to reinterpret dishes. If it says Caesar salad we expect to see cos lettuce, Caesar dressing, croutons and parmesan. To start messing around with boiled eggs, peas, and even tomatoes (I've seen all three in pretend Caesar salads served up by Belfast restaurants) is to make something that is no longer a Caesar salad. Café Rouge's is authentic, crunchy and freshly soaked in a beautifully anchovy-soaked dressing.
As with the starters and mains, Café Rouge's dessert menu is both old-fashioned and knee-wobblingly racy. Steamed chocolate pudding is further enhanced with peanut butter ice cream. Think Reese's peanut butter cups and imagine that cold and warm sweetness and savouriness combined.
The talents of a pastry chef are at full tilt in Rouge because the caramelised banana tart with rum and raisin syrup was a marvel. This is an old-fashioned sweet — the kind my mother would have found exotic 50 years ago — but its delicious and dense lumpiness moistened with that syrup made it hard to beat.
The strawberry and black pepper soup was not so successful. Strawberries and cracked black pepper go as well together as any double-header circus act. It's true. If you haven't tried it, get some strawberries and crack the black pepper over them and see if that doesn’t improve the strawberriness of it all. Naturally, the strawberry and black pepper soup would be a triumph, I thought. It wasn't. Sweet strawberry juice with a throat-ripping pepperiness called for a sharp intake of breath followed by two large glasses of water.
Café Rouge is a relaxed place and even more so on a sunny autumn afternoon and evening with its outside tables and chairs and unhurried (but not slow) service. It deserves to succeed both as a fashion statement and as a place in which to enjoy the food of your granny and a bit of what you fancy from more recent recipe books.Chicken and |chorizo risotto £6.50
Caesar salad £5.75
Seafood spaghetti £8.50
Garlic chips £2.50
Strawberry and|pepper soup £4.50
Glass of wine £3.75
Diet c18oke X 2 £3.30