Restaurant review: We take a bite from Cyprus Avenue
228 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, Tel: 028 9065 6755
The cluster effect is one which many industrial development agencies try to encourage. Let me explain. Silicon Valley in California is a cluster: a vast industrial park in which thousands of employees working for competitor high tech firms intermingle and collaborate. The exchange of ideas is encouraged because these smart companies know that the more they all share information the more business they will attract - everyone's a winner.
The cluster effect has long been acknowledged by Invest NI and others as a foundation stone of success applicable to all sorts of sectors. The NI Science Park is a good example. And so it goes for jewellers (Antwerp); finance (City of London); red light districts (Rue St Denis, Paris); and restaurants (Ballyhackamore).
We've revisited Ballyhackamore over the years because it's the Belfast barrio that keeps on giving. Now it's home to promising newcomer, Cyprus Avenue, a restaurant named after the nearby tree-lined street made famous by Van Morrison. Occupying a space formerly kept warm by the good but short-lived Baja Taqueria, Cyprus Avenue is a very tidy little restaurant, beautifully designed and channelling a timeless Paris bistro and intimate enough for illicit behaviour (the booths at the back are made for romance).
Add to this, food prepared by chef-owner Richard McCracken, a former protégé of Danny Millar and you have a comforting mix of mild excitement and choice. McCracken has good form. Plenty of experience with Danny at Balloo House as well as time well spent with Tom Kitchin and other high achievers, means there's plenty of flair in the fayre.
A starter of caramelised chicory croissant, black pudding and poached egg is a sizeable wonder, full of moist lushness and a variety of crumbling, flowing and melting textures from the flaky pastry, the ample, unctuous black pudding and that soft, flowing egg. Three of us are trying to be calorie-reasonable in this second week of January so we share the starter. But it's too good. Very soon a fight breaks out and I realise we should have ordered one each. We settle down as the mains arrive.
There then follows a slightly mixed bag of reactions. The chicken burger with chorizo and gubbeen cheese is an elegantly shaped, pressed cylinder of meat on a light bun. You can see McCracken's sculptural skills are not lacking. The flavours are rich and surprisingly well matched - there is an acidic sweetness in chorizo which hits a positive note next to the lusty, beefy gubbeen. The smoked paprika mayo is a nice departure and provides a sense of occasion to the thing making it special.
But the vastly differing stress tolerances of the bun and the chicken make them incompatible as a burger. The chicken requires cutlery. The bun is not a suitable platform for this puck and while a Belfast bap would provide matching rigidity, it might be too ignorant.
The roast root vegetable salad is well received. Parsnips, carrots, softened and caramelised, rub shoulders with crunchy chicory, couscous, pomegranate and a yoghurt dressing. It is pronounced very good indeed and the ideal job for those pressing the January health and fitness reset button.
The curry spiced fish with spiced mushy lentils, coronation mayo and fries is actually a very nice piece of chip shop style battered hake. The batter is brittle and golden and the fish within, white as my daughters' teeth, and just right. But of the curry in the fish itself there is little sign. The lentils are heavenly, however. They provide the heat and depth and the overall dish works very well.
The chips are the only real disappointment, a bit lifeless compared to everything else McCracken has made which sparkles and resonates.
The menu is exciting and attractive, different and even innovative. The dining room has all the charms of a neighbourhood bistro and it has in a very short time created a real sense of place and identity. It is super comfortable, one of those places you just want to linger in. And the service is exemplary.
Cyprus Avenue will quickly gather a loyal clientele and if they stay open in the afternoons to do coffee, it is likely to become a favourite for local business people. The coffee is excellent and the prices better than reasonable.
Croissant and black pudding .............£5
Curry fish ...........................................£10
Root veg salad ...............................£6.50
Chicken burger ....................................£8
Large sparkling water x 2 ..................£7
Glass Picpoul .......................................£5