Joris Minne: Aldens
Successful restaurants shift with the times, just like good pop stars.
David Bowie started as a snaggle-toothed rocker in the early Sixties. A few years later he had changed into something else and so began a 40-year career of changed identities, keeping his fans wanting more each time.
He did glam rock, platform-soled superstar, parent-shocking emaciated druggy emo, slick but stern Thin White Duke and finally, sparkly-eyed crooner with plenty of rock left in him (and a new set of Hollywood-class teeth). For God's sake he even wore a woolly jumper for a White Christmas special with Bing Crosby.
But two things were constant from the very beginning: Bowie was a brilliant musician and he was always a skinny dude. These are two of the most powerful values in the world of consumer pop.
Showbiz has to be like that. You have to have the fundamentals right but also be pushing back the envelope, taking risks, being innovative to stay at the top. There are some glaring exceptions, mind you. Cliff Richard.
Restaurants are in the showbusiness sector. They, too, need to innovate, change and take risks while providing the kind of quality of food and experience that makes us want more.
Ultimately, there are two kinds of restaurants: the David Bowie restaurant, which is constantly changing and therefore always in demand; and the Cliff Richard one, which never changes but does a decent turn nonetheless.
In Northern Ireland your Cliff Richards include the Viscount in Dungannon, most Chinese restaurants and the Bushmills Inn.
The David Bowies include Cayenne, Deanes, Morrison's, Ginger, Bombay Brasserie in Belfast, The Manor Park in Armagh, Coyle's Bistro in Bangor and a good few more.
The Bowies have all been transformed at least once in the last 10 years and, as a result, remain freshly attractive and are perceived therefore to be edgy. The Cliff Richards operate on the basis that you know what you want and you don't like surprises.
Aldens on the Newtownards Road in Belfast is a Bowie restaurant. This is surprising because the Davis family — who blessed Belfast as far back as the late Sixties with the Skandia chain of restaurants and for whom Jonathan Davis, owner of Aldens, represents the second generation — is catering aristocracy and therefore viewed as conventional.
Yet Jonathan's dad overhauled the remaining Skandias in the last few years and gave us Olio and Aldens in the city and both are doing well.
Aldens itself has changed quietly and discreetly recently. It used to be a little austere, a little self-conscious and just a bit up itself.
Even though the prices were always remarkably reasonable and Jonathan has always been a democratic sort, there was that distinct old-fashioned air about it, which says more about the previous generation's involvement perhaps.
Ten years on, Aldens is much more at ease with itself, maturing nicely into a congenial, smiley kind of place where suits rub shoulders with untucked-in shirts.
A soothing mood is enhanced by great lighting and a redesigned space that has cleverly created many cosy corners through the gift of chest-high partitions.
Also, the food is better than it was. There seems to be more care in the dishes and the way they are served. The service was always good but now it's distinctly slick in a happy and reassuring way (in that you will be happy and reassured by the confidence the servers show — the kind of confidence that does not encroach into arrogance territory).
The menus are packed with variety and the £12 two-course set lunch is a real bargain.
For £12 (every lunchtime except Sunday) you get a choice of three starters including steamed mussels with white wine. Among the mains you can choose sweet potato, cauliflower and aubergine curry, crab and tomato linguine, duck confit with red cabbage and dauphinoise potatoes or minute steak with pepper sauce and chunky chips.
The a-la-carte lunch menu is influenced by the current trend to blur the difference between starter and main. The 21st century is all about change, remember, so stop being so conventional and have cottage pie as a starter, it seems to say.
Arch conservative, my co-pilot on this mission (who goes by the code name of The Biggest Ring), was not, however, baffled by this.
He could have soup followed by steak or salmon; on the other hand he could have chips for dessert. Whatever. It might be modern, but Aldens knows how to keep conventional east Belfast sweet.
The warm pigeon salad with apple and black pudding was a small and joyful thing.
The pigeon breasts were pink and plentiful, the black pudding was robustly textured, crumbly and dry, and the briefly roasted apple gave the whole thing a pleasantly French rustic feel.
Scallops with Serrano ham and apple salsa were excellent value (small one for £7.95 or large for £13.95). Fresh scallops are so delicately flavoured I sometimes feel they should make a solo appearance without the need for back-up from ham or whatever. Nonetheless, this was a great lunchtime moment that provided a little glamour and excitement to an otherwise grey weekday.
There are some very good value dishes on the menu, with moules frites at £6.95 and cottage pie at £7.25. Even the higher cost seabass, fillet of salmon and sirloin are reasonable enough.
The desserts are as well thought out and include a bread and butter pudding, which was as warm, sweet, rich and wet as the best currently on offer in Northern Ireland — which is served by Pier 36 in Donaghadee.
None of this will set the world on fire but I'm not convinced we need to be shocked and amazed each time we eat out. There is a place, as the adviser might say, for old-fashioned quality values. And Aldens has changed while keeping its regulars (who in general are a bit more Cliff Richard than David Bowie) on board. It has come of age.
Now may be the time for Aldens to start thinking about its next steps as it evolves and develops its reputation as the kind of place that is reliable on the one hand but also has a few surprises up its sleeve.Linguine £5.50
Pigeon salad £8.95
Bread and butter pudding £5.50
Roasted peaches £4.95
Half bottle riesling £9.95