Restaurant review: We take a bite out of French Village
French Village. 99 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Tel: 028 9031 3248
Frequent travellers to other towns and cities are like criminals. They like to go back to the scene of the coffee. I have a fondness for Brown Thomas' cafe in Dublin. When in Londonderry, I go to Brown's in Town.
It's about rekindling happy memories of previous visits. It's also reassuring territory and provides an instant community, a place in which, for whatever reason, you feel you belong.
Belfast has a few such places and one that stands out as the genuine, independent, beware-of-imitations bistro destinations is the French Village in Botanic Avenue. I've noticed out-of-town friends often suggest meeting in the French Village.
The cafe/restaurant/deli is a busy, usually packed, intimate sanctuary popular with all sorts, ranging from students and academics to families and suits.
People are happy to queue for the cosy dining room on the left as they are for the deli counter on the right. This is always a good sign, even if queues are not my favourite indicator of quality.
The fact is, however, that the French Village does simple food exceptionally well. The service is also attentive and quick and there is a youthful energy about the operation that is invigorating without ever being irritating.
A recent first visit was the result of a recommendation from my advisors number two and three, who are regulars.
Securing lunch in term time at French Village is no easy matter. First, you must take your place in the queue and do the dance of the opening and closing front door. Secondly, you must resist the alternative, which is to ditch the wait and go straight to the deli counter instead and take something away.
French Village started as a bakery. (It's called that because it's owned by the French family - that's their surname.) So the quick over-the-counter service is a well-oiled machine, designed to get high volumes of hungry lunchers in and out fast.
The efficiency and convenience match the quality and choice of soups, savouries, pastries and coffees. But I never liked eating at my desk, or on my lap; anything other than a table is to be avoided, so the two advisors and I wait and watch for our turn.
Eventually, we are squeezed happily into a table in the bay overlooking the passing traffic on the corner of Botanic and University Street.
The avenue had lost some of its sparkle when Fred J Malcolm and its high-end jewellery shop relocated to the Lisburn Road a few years ago. But the staying power of No Alibis bookstore, the music school, some good coffee shops and Chinese restaurants and the success of French Village have combined to reinvigorate the elegant street.
As you'd expect from a proper bakery, it opens early and keeps going through breakfast, lunch and dinner. Three of us are going through the lunch menu and all that appeals to teenagers (wraps, paninis, white bread sandwiches) and parents (salads, stews, baked potatoes) is there.
The lunch menu runs to two pages and the range goes from exciting, spicy chipotle hot wrap to sensible homemade stew with fresh wheaten bread.
The sweet chilli chicken and cheese panini is a generous affair. Unlike those flattened things that look like a smoking espadrille, the panini here is a more rounded and appealing hot sandwich. Bread is crusty and dusty, providing great bite texture to contrast with the slushy rich sweet, spicy and sour insides.
A hot wrap with chicken, chorizo and mozzarella is chin-dribblingly lush. Both come with a little salad and added criss-cross chips. I haven't seen those outside of the supermarket freezer, but they still have their magic.
A haddock and sweet potato fries is accompanied by a nice pot of mushy, minty peas. It's excellent. Light, salty batter encases the firm, glossy white fish.
You can't go to French Village on a diet, so apple tart with fresh cream, tray bakes and banoffee are all inspected and swiftly dispatched. French Village is a happy place, serving happy food. No wonder people feel they belong here.
Hot wrap £5.50
Haddock and chips £7.95
Criss-cross chips £2.00
Coke (x2) £3.20
Sparkling water £1.30
Macchiato (large) £2.40
Cortado (large) £2.00
Apple tart £3.95
Rocky Road £1.65