Restaurant review: Baker Street, east Belfast
20-22 Belmont Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9065 3000
What's so French about the French Village on Botanic Avenue, the excellent little café restaurant favoured by students and academics from nearby Queen's University? Nothing. Other than Ashley French and his family put their name over the door. Maybe the French family are tiring of their neat branding trick because their latest venture sees them in east Belfast's most talked-about restaurant address: the former bank which has, in the last 10 years housed Gourmet Burger Bank, Ace, Happy Angel, Pastificcio and Bank Café. Now it's Baker Street, a nod to the French DNA which is firmly associated with flour, eggs, milk and ovens.
Since the demise of the much-loved Gourmet Burger Bank, this part of Belfast, known as Strand Town, has played second fiddle to neighbouring Ballyhackamore. Ballyhack is home to a number of high-profile restaurants - including Aldens (now Neil's Hill), Graze, Bistro Este, Il Pirata, Mandarin City, Bistro Este, Acapulco, the Raj Put and Jasmine. All of these are very good and have helped establish the district as a cool, boho quarter. Backed up by reinforcements which include a good sprinkling of cycling shops (Dave Kane has two on the Newtownards Road), greengrocers, quality grooming outlet (Jason Shankey), post office, banks and, essentially, estate agencies, Ballyhack is the current holder of Belfast's boho chic crown.
But Strand Town is fighting back, claiming its own new identity as a worthy rival with a portfolio of cafés and restaurants which is drawing attention to itself. Oliver's, Smart Café, Bennett's and Slim's now dominate the lower Belmont Road and junction with Hollywood Road, which marks Strand Town. The new Marco Pierre White Steak House & Grill is around the corner. Baker Street is at the heart of all this competition. The pressure is on to deliver something which the newly upwardly mobile local population will want to come back to, again and again.
At first glance, the omens are good. The adviser took two teens there recently and reported that the burgers "are up there", a fitting tribute to the long-gone but never forgotten Gourmet Burger Bank. Service was faultless, the room was warm and free of draughts (not easy with those floor to ceiling windows and industrial build quality). On my return to work (our office is on the Belmont Road) I nipped in a couple of times for something light, but it wasn't until we went as a family for dinner and a client dinner a few nights later that I realised it was quite so good.
For under £60 four of us ate and drank well. Baker Street scores highly on value for money if slightly less so on excitement and innovation. But Belfast likes predictability, volume and comfort and all three are here in spades. There is enough by way of fish of the day (a very decent pan fried cod fillet on the last night I was there), specials and staples to make Baker Street a regular occurrence in your life if you happen to be in this part of town. Prices are more than reasonable and service is friendly, considerate and prompt, something very necessary at lunchtime and a feature often overlooked by restaurants.
For instance, a lunch involving a generous piece of roast chicken on sour dough bread for £4.50 is ideal for the busy worker with short break times. The burgers are excellent and this may be to do with the fact that I think I recognised the original Gourmet Burger Bank chef.
In the evening, that service is just as efficient but more in keeping with the relaxed nature of dinner. Also, the rapid response lunch restaurant doesn't always manage to transfer its magic to the evening. Baker Street creates two moods very successfully.
Baker Street is an upmarket diner. It is busy because it has nailed that vibe which requires cool but comfortable surroundings, youthful and attentive service, quality food that won't scare the grandparents or children and in-between meals coffee and buns.
Of course, that's the French strength: home baking. Expect to see loads of tray bakes, brownies, meringues and cakes. They are fabulously sinful.
Roast chicken on sour dough £4.50
Bacon cheese burger £8.00
Chilli burger £7.50
Turkey special £12.50
Salt caramel brownie £1.50
Lemon meringue tart £3.00
Glass Shiraz £5.95
Macchiato x 2 £4.40
Sparkling water x 2 £2.00