Warm welcome: We take a bite from The Hoose Bistro
52 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast Tel: 028 9065 8216
Within months of the credit crash in 2008 and the immediate disruption to millions of lives around the world, people were soon talking about how they were sure they had seen the first green buds of economic recovery. Certain sectors like IT, entertainment and travel showed an increase in activity early enough, but only relative to the plummeting fortunes of everyone else.
The opening of Victoria Square in Belfast, for instance, was hailed at the time as evidence of economic bounce-back.
But while a few of these green buds have, in fact, taken root, particularly across the water in GB, we in Northern Ireland still face a pretty bleak future, what with all these monster cuts to our public sector budgets.
One area of activity which costs less than 0.01% of our budget is the arts, and arts events in particular.
Such events, which include street festivals with live music, drama and visual arts, rip people away from the telly and haul them out into the streets.
These events enliven our towns and cities and they drive up a bit of business for the bars and restaurants.
Which is why small independent bars and restaurants, which lead precarious existences at the best of times, are not taking root as much as we'd like.
They need fertile ground and plenty of people willing to spend a few pounds on a night out, or a decent lunch.
The Hoose is a green bud in one of the most blighted areas of Belfast, the Newtownards Road. The reopening of what was formerly Bistro Este (it moved a few hundred yards up the road to Ballyhackamore) is a welcome sight.
And what's even more encouraging is that there appears to be a commitment to culinary excellence as well.
It is simple and straightforward at lunchtime (there are three evening dinners per week; BYO, no corkage, Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and these have been generating favourable reviews - so more on those another day).
The strength and charm of The Hoose is based on its modesty. This is the old school east Belfast approach to hospitality: friendly, genuinely welcoming and exuding warmth.
The place is tiny, with a few tables at the front and a pleasant lookout bar at the window for those on their own, as I was, to watch the Newtownards Road traffic clatter by.
The kitchen is within eyeshot at the back and if you want to go slightly posh, there's upstairs.
The whole place has a timeless quality to it. It reminds me of the comfortable cafes of the Sixties and Seventies, where the moment was magical: half-an-hour over a cup of tea and a bun was a tiny holiday and an escape from whatever else you were doing.
The Hoose has an element of this, but it also has a proper lunch menu. Today's specials are vegetable broth and chicken and leek pie. I order both.
The sizeable menu otherwise offers steak ciabatta with cheddar cheese, onions, mushrooms and peppers with chips and pepper sauce (£8.95), various chicken dishes, fish pie and two veggie options, as well as gluten-free things.
There is also an extensive breakfast menu, by the way, and it features everything you'd imagine in east Belfast as well as pancakes, bagels, French toast and omelettes.
The vegetable broth is fresh, light and packed with barley. The flavours are good, but chef has been incredibly tight with the salt. It needs loads of it.
For some, this has a strong appeal - many friends now use very little salt if any at all for health reasons, so this will appeal to them.
The chicken pie arrives in a deep iron skillet accompanied by an appetising mound of buttery mash sprinkled with chives. The pie is more of a stew topped with a puff pastry hat. It's packed with bite-size chunks of meat, a smoky dimension is added by the cured bacon and the whole thing is held together in a wonderful creamy sauce, in which the leeks have played their tangy role.
This is old cuisine, Ulster-style. It's wholesome, well-priced and quick. The service is exemplary and the room itself is attractively bright.
There is a slight problem with the ventilation, which means that the kitchen cooking smells are a bit invasive - only a problem when the deep fat frier is on - but otherwise this is a wonderful, neighbourhood bistro which should do very well.
Bottle water £1.50