Bennett's: Lush risotto and queenie scallops mark dramatic improvement in east Belfast
Restaurant Review: Bennett’s - 4 Belmont Road, Belfast BT4 2AN. Tel: 028 9065 6590
Anyone who has suffered food poisoning will be among the first to agree that the Food Standards Agency has a point. The agency's star system marks restaurants out of a maximum of five points. Five is good, one is terrible. Top markers tend to put these scores on their doors in the form of a sticker. Anyone with less than four points understandably may choose not to advertise this.
Occasionally, the marks raise eyebrows as, for instance, when Cayenne, one of Belfast's top restaurants managed to score one point. Some other very good restaurants fell down on the scores and managed to get their shame dragged across the pages of the newspapers.
Sympathy should be shown to these places because while they make the news with dismal scoring - inferring that they are dirty kips - they do not receive the same publicity when they correct their operations. Many of these restaurants take immediate action and are reassessed only weeks later, more often than not receiving top marks. But the damage has been done, because no newspaper is going to report this bit of the story.
The food standards people look at hygiene and structure, but they don't look at food quality or service. If they did, I'd be the first to sign up as an inspector. Because there is one restaurant which consistently scored highly but which also produced less than mediocre food. Out of five, I would have given it two.
But things have changed dramatically in east Belfast's Bennett's Café. Once the beacon of cool, quality eating with a good wine list (and groundbreaking beer list), Bennett's in the last two years slid down the hill a bit and, as a regular visitor, I could see the decline unfold. Ulster Fries were greasy and tasteless, lunches were hurriedly put together and not always successfully.
But major changes in the kitchen in the last few weeks have resulted in dramatic improvement. While the front of house service was always good, servers had to shoulder most of the work to maintain Bennett's popularity. Now the service is matched by the food.
I had one of the lushest risottos there last week at lunchtime. The queenies and the squash worked unexpectedly well. The tiny scallops, no bigger than duffle coat buttons, were intensely flavoured and firmly textured. We are used to the giant jobs from Strangford but these little queenies have their own attraction. If there was ever any flavour in squash (I never discerned much) then this was the first time I got it. A mild sweetness with something more earthy and musky mixed well with the rice and light creamy texture to provide a great stage for those star queenies.
A piece of hake on a bed of champ was textbook classic. This may sound ordinary and bland, but when it's done perfectly - when the fish flakes into glistening shards and the mash beneath it is so infused with butter that it's gold in colour - this is the meal to sort out and resolve any problems, psychological, political, sexual or otherwise. In fact, everyone should consider this dish as a reset button: when life becomes too much, reach for Bennett's hake and champ.
They're good at other things too. The desserts and coffees, the vegetarian options, the wine by the glass at very reasonable prices, are all part of the reason why this place became an anchor for Strandtown.
The little restaurant kick-started the emergence of east Belfast as a trendy district and a slew of other good places opened up including Gourmet Burger Bank (now Bank Café), Oliver's Café Smart and others. It's a classic case of the original now finding it has competition on its hands. Thankfully, it's done something about it and can reclaim its position at the top of the Strandtown tree.
Apple Crumble £4.50
Glass wine £4.95
Large Sparkling water £4.10
Double espresso £2