Bistro Este may have relocated to Belfast's new cultural hub in the east, but their ethos of serving great dishes at good prices is intact
Belfast's new boho quarter is now complete and officially open. Surprisingly, the new hub of wild and wonderful creativity is not at the top of the Ormeau Road, although the residents there like to think so. Nor is it by St Anne's Square. And it's definitely not on the Lisburn Road.
No. Bohemian Belfast's pulsating heart is now Ballyhackamore, that 200-yard stretch of the Upper Newtownards Road which has successfully morphed into the city's new Haight Ashbury zone of cultural experimentalism. I'm exaggerating, of course, but only mildly. You need to understand just how dramatically different this place is now compared to ten years ago.
To qualify for full urban bohemian quarter status, an area must first have an international standard cycle shop. In Ballyhack there are two. Both are Dave Kane Cycles (anyone who knows the slightest thing about bikes knows that skinny Dave Kane and his son Mark are the undisputed masters of the cycling universe). A full-fat boho area should also be home to some bakeries, at least two art galleries, a techy business centre and loads of street art. Tick.
But these mean nothing until you add a portfolio of funky restaurants. Now joining the ranks of Il Pirata, Neil's Hill, Jasmin, Little Wing, Baja Cantina, Acapulco and Mandarin City, all within a Glen Patterson saunter from each other, is Bistro Este.
Bruised, battered but unbowed following its catastrophic winter season – the flag protestors who focused on Naomi Long's Alliance Party office next door to the original Bistro Este scared off all the Christmas and New Year trade last year – the restaurant has moved the few hundred yards up the Newtownards Road to safer ground. Right across the street from Judith Cochrane's Alliance Party office (fingers crossed).
The new BE is much less claustrophobic than the tiny two-up, two-down it previously occupied. The dining room is bright and spacious, there's room to navigate prams and wheelchairs and the natural light pouring in from the glassed ceiling creates a pleasant, almost greenhouse-like effect. It's like a flattened out version of Café Conor in Stanmillis, the former painter's studio.
Bistro Este has a tricky role to play, surrounded as it is by quality restaurants. Its trick was to put quality on the table at cheap prices. A bring your own with no corkage fees made it very popular. Early indications are that chef patron David Adams has decided to keep the quality standards and stay with the BYO policy for now (although there is a reasonable £3 wine corkage, or 50p for beers and cider, charge).
A mushroom soup on a cold and windy Saturday lunchtime was truly memorable. It had the warmth and comfort (and colour) of an expensive duffle-coat and the woodland flavours resonated as deep as a church bell.
Langoustines served cold with mayo are rare in this country. I love them this way. There's a sense of accomplishment to retrieving them intact from the grip of a cracked and finger-cutting sharp carapace, all cool, wet and slippery. These were right: solid enough to survive extrication, not so cooked that they had turned dry and doughy.
An oxtail burger came with brioche bun and good sideshow of rocket, mature cheddar, tomato chutney and salad. The scampi was made with langoustines and accompanied by triple-cooked chips.
Other lunchtime dishes include South American fishcakes with burnt lemon mayo, goat's cheese crostini served with onion marmalade, walnuts and salad, chicken schnitzel and warm halloumi.
Dinnertime brings out the showbiz David Adams and you'll find pigeon breast with pomegranate molasses, crubeens tonkatsu (a kind of Far Eastern Worcestershire sauce) with daikon radish and yuzu mayo (a citrus fruit) or treacle-cured salmon with a deep fried duck egg and pickled cucumber. And that's just the starters.
The mains are a tribute to winter appetites with guinea fowl, Catalan pork cheeks, venison with dauphinoises, roast poussin and daube of beef among them.
The new Bistro Este is even better than its former incarnation and its staff are highly experienced and you'll recognise some seasoned faces from other good restaurants.
The idea of boho chic escapes Adams if those pictures on the walls of the Harland and Wolff cranes are anything to go by. But this disdain for modern tastes in design is refreshing. The real bohemian flare here is in the food.
Oxtail burger £10
Toffee pudding £6
Coffees x 2 £4
Large sparkling water £2.50