The battle of Belfast boho districts is back. Having had to lay down their arms during the pandemic lockdown, heavyweight trendsetters Ballyhackamore and Ormeau/Rosetta are back in contention for the title of coolest residential area in the city. The rules are simple: each "quartier" needs a bicycle shop, post office, convenience store, ice-cream parlour, fish and chip shop, a decent pub or two and, essentially, an impressive portfolio of restaurants and bistros.
oth Ormeau/Rosetta and Ballyhackamore are seriously well appointed with all of the above. But until now Ballyhackamore had a slight advantage through the quality and variety of its restaurants. There is a breadth of interesting and consistently reliable places to eat including Neill's Hill, Cyprus Avenue, Bistro Este, Graze, Il Pirata, Mandarin City, Yugo, Jasmine as well as the fabulous Wolf and Devour burger joint and Acapulco. Many of these are close to the higher end of the neighbourhood category.
In Ormeau/Rosetta, the range is more reduced. You've got La Taqueria, l'Etoile, Shed, Gaze, Kaffe O, General Merchants, Bengal Brasserie and the extraordinary Bia Rebel noodle bar. Apart from Shed, the portfolio is more street than posh, so there was a gap in the market for something a little more napkins-and-crystal.
It was only a matter of time before two of Belfast's most respected chefs, Simons Toye and McCance, filled that gap with their first joint venture, Stove which only opened last week. Upstairs above a charity shop, it's not plush but it's bright and airy. It has that reassuringly homey rustic touch much beloved of the Rosetta selvedge denim and Dunfanaghy set. There are basket-weaved lighting fixtures, stacked Rory Shearer ceramics on shelves and views beyond the pass into the kitchen. It looks remarkably like McCance's Ginger.
Both Simons are in the kitchen on this third day since opening. But this will be the Simon Toye's show while the other Simon takes a back seat to focus on the mothership.
The menu is a delightful teaser with amuse-bouches of Comte fritters and oysters served with apple, dill and fermented cucumber among them. There is an impressive charcuteries board of Lisdurgan bresaola and salamis. Starters feature potato and onion soup with buttery croutons and Toons Bridge mozzarella with fancy tomatoes, watercress and pesto. The tomatoes and mozzarella salad is one I've enjoyed throughout the summer in all sorts of places and it's amazing how different they can be. This one is a generous, lush and very flavourful set perked up with hyper crunchy, thin biscottes.
There is also a parmesan and truffle twice-baked souffle. Unctuous, warm, deeply earthy and perfectly formed, this is the first souffle I've seen served out of the pot and on a plate. It may not help the aesthetics with the shaved truffles sitting on top but it is an extraordinarily tasty dish.
Among the mains are lamb rump with parmesan gnocchi, peas, bacon and mint, butter poached chicken which comes with roast shallots and morels sauce and a flat iron steak with duck fat chips and bearnaise. Tonight's fish is lemon sole, standing in for the sold-out cod, which comes with white beans, herb oil and black garlic emulsion. The fish is au point, sliding off the bone smoothly. The small bean stew, almost like a Spanish fabada, works interestingly well with the dry bean textures mixing well with the moist and pearly fish.
Four of us have also ordered sides of gratin potatoes and duck fat chips, all sublime, soft and creamy, crispy and salty.
Desserts are no afterthought with Paris-Brest served with a toffee sauce (I didn't think a Paris Brest should be interfered with but this is an enhancement), buttermilk pannacotta with strawberries and a chocolate tart good enough to raise the eyebrow of Pearson Morris in Noble.
Service is friendly, engaging and intelligent. This is an experienced crew and their smooth operation gives the whole place that slickness, that sense of confidence that you're in good hands. Just what Ormeau/Rosetta needs.
3-course dinner x 4 £104