Restaurant Review: we take a bite out of Swantons
639 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9068 3388.
The restaurant sector is a fickle one. Ever changing trends mean owners don't just have to keep an eye on food fads but also interior design. Imagine if you had to completely gut your business every three to five years and start again just so that you could be seen to be keeping up with the times.
In eight years of writing this column I've seen restaurants re-invent themselves time and again. So it is reassuring to know that this strategy must be working as the vast majority of the 400 or so restaurants reviewed are still around. They may have different names, chefs, staff and interiors, but they're still restaurants.
Eateries on the Lisburn Road are a good indicator of changing trends. We've seen loads of different names over the door of what is currently the Albany, for instance.
Those who enjoy The Albany will not necessarily walk up the road to Swantons. That's because Swantons is a more conventional, more relaxed and slightly more old-fashioned kind of operation. For one thing, it doesn't have a licence.
But it does have a critical component for success: a loyal clientele. Families with prams, older retired couples as well as suits like me enjoy the occasional moment when nothing is too stressed, where people are not trying too hard and in which the transaction is simple: you bring me food, I pay the money. In short, Swantons is not a lifestyle choice. It's the solid, reliable Toyota of restaurants. It's clean, cheerful and the food is honest, fresh and plentiful.
Swantons has gone through a few interior changes but its prominent red-brick bay which juts out into the Lisburn Road like the prow of a barge marks its location clearly.
A friend and I met for lunch there last week and found interesting, if unexciting offers, such as a lasagne, quiche and Cajun chicken with pasta. There was also a lentil, carrot and smoked bacon soup which in August anywhere else in the world might be frowned upon but which turned out to be light and airy as well as full of strong earthy flavours. The crumbling slice of wheaten which accompanied it was outstanding, perfectly baked, brittle crust, loads of wheatiness and texture. That and a spread of butter would have been enough for a decent lunch.
The chicken breast had been well marinated and coated in a deep ginger coloured mix of spices which had plenty of kick without any sting. The pasta beneath came with peppers and a sweet chilli sauce running through it. This would have been far better, and possibly more authentic, had the pasta been replaced by rice.
The lasagne was reportedly "sound". Swantons comes into its own on the sweet stakes. There is a cheesecake so memorable (and I've had some excellent ones lately) it deserves a special mention: a raspberry ripple flavour block was brought out on a fancy rectangular dish with scoop of ice cream. The brittle base half-an-inch thick formed the base for a super-light cheese cake mix of raspberry, cream cheese and air. The density is almost mousse-like and the raspberry flavour sings through.
Swantons might not be the place for the area's new money. It's a restaurant which appeals to the families and generations who have lived around here on both sides of the Road for years. It is a pukka neighbourhood caff which serves decent food and whose staff are warm, friendly, fast and hospitable. And the coffee is excellent.
Soup x 2 £9.00
Chicken pasta £8.50
Lasagne and garlic bread £7.95
Coffees x 2 £5.00