Even if La Bastille is spotlessly clean with sparkling tile floors, pretty furnishings and a neat bistro menu, there is enough loucheness about the place to give it the little kick of Parisian naughtiness we have come to expect from the land of sinful excess and shameless seduction.
I’m only saying that if you’re going to put a French bistro on the Lisburn Road, it would do no harm to add in some of the clichés we have learned to love. It’s down a few stairs in a basement (always a good sign), the wine list is predominantly French and there are frog’s legs on the starters list. Et voila — welcome to France!
The only thing that La Bastille has got wrong is the front of house staff, who are charming, helpful and knowledgeable.
The advisor and I came here three years ago and the food was pretty good then. But the then owner, one Francois de Dietrich (Swanky Franky as his staff used to know him), was a wanted felon and skipped the country a while back. In his place is another Frenchman, Guillaume Rabillat, whose management of La Bastille has greatly improved the venue.
They were doing a strong trade last Saturday night and Rabillat suggested we come before 7.30pm to avoid possible delays due to a couple of large tables in that evening. That’s the kind of alert system which goes down well in our house. You know to expect some turbulence, some slow deliveries, and you make the decision to proceed with the booking or order the Chinese instead.
As it turns out, there were no delays and the family dinner rolled out very nicely. The choices are so French — or as the advisor’s mother put it: it’s so France-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Northern-Ireland-in-the-early-Seventies — they are funny. It’s as if satire and caricature has come the whole way round again and we’re the joke. There are ‘lollipop frog legs’ served with watercress and garlic cream, the healthy option of pan fried foie gras with poached rhubarb, brioche and red wine jus and onion soup with proper gruyere and croutons. It’s not called French onion soup, naturally.
We resisted these and went down other well worn boulevards instead with the fresh asparagus served with poached egg and apple crisps. Asparagus at this time of the year is sublime and La Bastille didn’t overdo the delicate vegetable. Bursting with springtime, iron flavours, there were plenty of the bright green spears on the plates. Straddling these was a poached egg which had spent a minute too long in the water and bled a bit too thickly.
The apple crisps were beautifully tangy and brittle but had been mismatched with the asparagus. A ham hock with piccalilli, on the other hand, was a well-balanced blend of salty pork and eye-watering pickled caulifower and other veg. Classic, and well made. Meanwhile, the teenagers were firing into the bread basket. Slices of warm and unusually airy sourdough bread were outstanding. The flavour was exactly reminiscent of the best I’ve tasted in France, and it was no wonder we went through three baskets of the stuff.
A mid-course surprise of roast monkfish with a puree of aubergine, asparagus spear and chorizo was a great little fanfare to the talent in the kitchen. Look, it seemed to say, you didn’t order this but we think it’s gorgeous and you should have some. It was and we did.
The only other place I’ve seen rabbit in Belfast this year is Love & Death and here it was, only this time stuffed, roasted and served on a bed of barley. The rabbit was plentiful, with four big cuts rolled around a light stuffing of black pudding. It was a joy and reminded me of the puzzle of why rabbit is not so much more popular. The barley bed was OK but the hand-peeled broad beans (I hate when that grey wrinkly skin remains on them) were exceptional.
It’s not a cheap place to eat but when you consider that a bottle of good house red (merlot or cabernet sauvignon from Languedoc) or white (chardonnay or sauv blanc also from Languedoc) is only £17, it works out well enough.
The food and service in La Bastille will not disappoint. If you can get past the ‘Allo ‘Allo stereotyping (which I find very compelling) you’ll have a good time.
Bon appétit, inspecteur!
Asparagus x 2 £13.90
Ham hock terrine £5.95
Chicken x 2 £27.90
French fries £3.25
Diet Coke x 4 £9.20
Glass merlot £4.50
Bottle merlot £17
182a Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 6AL
Tel: 028 9066 7500