Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant review: We take a bite from Belfast's Saphyre

135 Lisburn Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim, BT9 7AG. Tel: +44 (0)28 9068 8606

By Joris Minne

Opulence is not a Belfast trait. We resist the lure of bling and luxury more successfully than, say Dubliners, Mancunians and Essex folk who love everything that glisters. It's something to do with the inbuilt sense of modesty and humility of northern Catholics and Presbyterians, both of whom share a common desire not to attract attention to themselves. "Who does he think he is?" is not the way we like to be referred to. If there's a choice between fine tweeds and sackcloth, we'll go for the itch and discomfort, thank you very much.

Even our best restaurants avoid opulence. Ox dining room is as plain as my P5 class at St Malachy's Primary School in Armagh was in the 60s. Deane's Eipic is fancyish but not obviously, and James Street South's interior is almost as serenely austere as Henri Matisse's chapel in Venice.

So, when interior designer to the stars, Kris Turnbull, turned his hand to the old disused church on the Lisburn Road to convert it into a furniture and interior design shop and added a restaurant at the back, he was defiant. He didn't hold back on the velvet upholstery, the gold wall linings or the super acreage of white linen. This is Belfast's only truly opulent restaurant, the kind of interior which embraces you in its luxurious clutch and refuses to release you until you've fully succumbed to its charms (and can no longer stand up unaided anyway).

I like the walk through the shop to the restaurant and the separate Vestry Cafe because it reminds me of gliding through Fultons when the Boucher Road store was the only place you could find over-stuffed sofas and decorative, life-sized, ceramic panthers alongside very pretty, modern Ligne Roset dining tables and chairs.

Club-like and exclusive, the restaurant lies behind closed doors at the back of the shop. Alex, the maitre d', is on hand immediately and navigates the three of us through the plushness to our table which features what looks like a demi-chase longue against the wall and two low club chairs. We sink into these and prepare ourselves for a leisurely, sorry, I mean a business-like Friday lunch. I am with two senior political communications specialists who know a thing or two about perception and I'm keen to impress them

There are two lunch menus. If you went for the five-course tasting menu, you may very well have to book the rest of the day off, but service for a regular two or three course lunch is quick if you want it to be. We choose a third way: a regular three course lunch from the regular menu, but taken at ease.

The menu by Joery Castell, formerly of the Boat House in Bangor and who this year featured through to the pre-finalists in the Great British Menu, is reassuringly priced and the short wine list equally. Kicking things off with a Provencal rose at £24 we soon get into the starters of chowder, lobster bisque and a lobster salad. There is a generosity in all of these. The bisque is dark and inviting, bolstered by a shelled claw tip. The seafood chowder is an outstanding work, as light as The Beringer's (formerly the Permit Room) and light on the carbs. The salad is dominated by large chunks of fresh, cool lobster tail and comes with equally appetising pieces of tomatoes, some green, others red and orange, all bursting with great flavours. Everyone is happy.

A beef fillet, an onglet (sometimes called hanger steak) and a lamb moussaka are equally impressive, the onglet, particularly so, cooked black and red. Sometimes the onglet which costs half as much as the filet gives more pleasure through its texture and iron-like flavours. Today is a case in point.

It is nicely charred yet still rare, firm but not tough and served up with a well suited salsa verde and roast tomato.

The surprising appearance of lamb moussaka on the menu must surely be for those of a nervous disposition who don't want anything too demanding. Yet it is lush and deep in flavour, almost wintery in its density. Accompanied by mornay and lightly grilled potatoes, I make a note to self to order it the next time.

The fillet has been destroyed by a request to have it medium and I cannot comment on it any further. It certainly wasn't Castell's fault.

Saphyre's food is not as vertical and attention-seeking as it used to be, and it's all the better for it. Joery Castell has matured and resists the temptation to go for gothic drama. Now it's about comfort and quiet quality.

What's not to love?

The bill

Chowder .............................................   £6

Bisque ................................................... £5

Lobster salad ....................................... £11

Moussaka ............................................. £12

Onglet ................................................. £13

Fillet ..................................................... £28

Cheese ................................................ £13

Rose de Provence x 2 ........................ £48

Total: ................................................ £136

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