If you’ve ever seen restaurateur Colleen Bennett, you will be reminded immediately of Renee Zellweger. They are deadringers.
That warm, friendly, vulnerable smile, soft north American lilt (Bennett is Canadian — close enough) and earnest gaze, all these attributes are perfectly reflected in her Holywood restaurant above a kitchenware shop, the first-floor Fontana which is a quiet haven of peace and tranquillity.
More of a nice girl’s boudoir than a Holywood wife’s lair, Fontana is very feminine.
Enveloping booths upholstered in pale coloured tiny stripes clash flirtatiously with the bold flowery wallpaper.
Soothing natural light from the large windows, which look out to a bright patio large enough for two or three tables in the summer months, bathes the whole place in sunlight even, it seems, when it’s raining.
Serenity, calm and a decent world music soundtrack are features not normally enjoyed in Northern Ireland restaurants. Perhaps the idea is to offer an away-from-it-all moment of therapy for the diner.
Not a low-cost eatery, Fontana has been around for years. This is not surprising as it sits in the pulsating heart of one of the most affluent regions of Northern Ireland.
This is the part of North Down that actually lives up to all the jokes, myths and legends about the place.
Grand and wealthy stay-at-home wives still float aimlessly in their Mercedes coupes from the chemist by the Maypole junction in the middle of the village up to Floral Earth to pick up the dazzling arrangement of flowers ordered earlier that morning by the butler and then back down to BTW Cairns’s window to see how much the neighbours have reduced the sale price of their hacienda today.
Once these errands have been completed, including dropping off last year’s worn-twice Ferragamo shoes and the kids’ ski suits at the Marie Curie shop, these women head back to the hills in time for their tennis/aroma-therapy/hot stones/body-waxing/Chinese philosophy/tantric yoga session. This is therapy central.
But are these the kind of people who go to Fontana? Is this the market earthy, earnest Colleen Bennett is catering for? I think she aims above that because there is no immediate sense from the menu that the food is gimmicky, faddish or new-agey in any way.
The high a-la-carte prices might reflect the tone of the neighbourhood, but the spring menu at £15.50 for three courses is very reasonable by anybody’s standards.
And anyway, the appearance of Asian spices and vegetables, risottos and fresh fish dishes tells you there is a love for California and the Pacific shores beyond rather than a concerted pursuit of moneyed clients who’d probably rather go to the Culloden up the road for something more conventional.
It is a truly different place from the many other good restaurants now at the reach of just about anybody with £20 or less on them in the Greater Belfast area.
It’s different because Bennett has managed to keep our inner numpty happy with good boiled potatoes, great steaks, fresh fish and voluminously agricultural desserts. The fried brill I had with light soy-based Asian sauce came with pak choi and new spuds; the scallops came with green beans and new spuds and the risotto with juicy firm peas. See? You can eat exotic and still have your staples, Bennett seems to say.
A starter of risotto with prawns and chilli provided a fresh departure from many others you’ll see around. Despite the rice’s ever-so-slight bite, a few minutes longer and it would have been perfect, the warm comfort of the white buttery sauce and fresh soft prawns was cleverly offset by fiery little shards of red chillies — not so hot as to dominate but enough to add an unexpected twinkle.
The brill fillets were generous and beautifully roasted in butter. The boiled potatoes beneath with the pak choi and spicy jus were good but out of place; maybe it’s just me but spuds and Chinese-style sauces are a fusion too far even if all the component parts are brilliant.
The scallops on the plate opposite were large and juicy and while I couldn’t count them there seemed a fair amount of them, maybe half a dozen.
While there appeared an equal abundance of potatoes on this dish they seemed more comfortable accompanied by green beans and little dollops of thick, white, creamy sauce.
The apple and blueberry crumble was on the mark with crunch aplenty and lots of warm soft fruit. The crème anglaise had separated slightly or had been heated with some butter that hadn’t quite mixed in but was tasty nonetheless.
Fontana has been consistent all these years and Bennett’s eponymous cafe restaurant in Belmont Road shows all the same traits of quality and care.
Despite her recent setbacks with the failed operation in Odyssey — can anyone make that huge dead corner which originally opened as the Hard Rock Cafe work? — it’s great to see Colleen Bennett sticking to her guns.
Soup set menu: £3.50
Smoked salmon starter: £7.75
Risotto set menu: £7.25
Prawn risotto: £8.50
Sparkling water x 2: £7.90
Ginger beer: £1.40
Coffee x 3: £6.55