Bistro review: 44 Hill Street Restaurant
Belfast. Tel: 028 9590 8444
Restaurants are like mushrooms. They thrive in the dark and are fed all sorts of crap, mostly from critics, diners, suppliers, investors and banks. Unexpectedly, they can also be mobile.
Take La Bastille, the sturdy French bistro, which lived in a semi-basement on the Lisburn Road in Belfast for 10 years. It recently uprooted the sizeable replica Eiffel Tower which was a landmark eyesore planted very visibly near the footpath and then moved the whole restaurant kit and caboodle to the Cathedral Quarter.
Thankfully, there is no sign of the tower at the new address. But the Gallic charm is more evident than ever. The new restaurant rejoices in a more on-trend aged urban and industrial mood, with barrels, bricks and bare wood tables. The lighting is also excellent.
I didn't think you were allowed to open a bar, or restaurant, in Hill Street unless it looked like it had been burned down and demolished by Eastwoods and then hastily rebuilt, twice, using scrap metal from Clearway and offcuts from JP Corry timber merchants.
44 has a robust and sophisticated style of its own and arrival through the charming, cooper's entrance signals a sense of quality and occasion. Expectations are raised.
The first human contact on entering is with a man who is not expressing the warmth of a welcoming inn-keeper. It's not called the hospitality industry for people engaged in it to overlook the simplest of courtesies. Any lines from the restaurants-for-beginners lexicon which includes the words "Hello", "You're welcome", "Where would you like to sit?" and so on are remarkably absent.
I'm amazed that restaurateurs can't get this bit right, as it's the easiest part of the trade: to make people feel welcome. It's what brings repeat trade.
It turns out that the unhappy-looking man is owner Guillaume Rabillat whose son, Luc, is waiting on tables today and who is, thankfully, youthful, charming and pleasant.
I get past the brusqueness and dive into the menu, which features specials of tapas, starters and mains, all compelling. My navigator today is Geoff Hill, the famous travel writer and adventurer, who has a good eye for food, drink and service.
We agree choices of dishes to create maximum spread. There are tapas of crispy and moist French black pudding discs topped with a tangy apple puree, accompanied by some rocket leaves. Geoff and I squabble over them as there are five between the two of us. Another of crispy lamb belly is outstanding, all little salty bites and flakes of meat on a bed of lettuce.
A goat's cheese tartlet is topped with baked heirloom tomatoes, which brings out the sharpness and acidity to top the smooth dryness of the goat's cheese and relative sweetness of the flaky pastry.
A charred pork chop is heavenly, tender, full of breathy, piggy flavours, but a bit mean and skinny for the £20 asking price. Geoff's steak bruschetta is impressively generous, although the visuals may have been slightly contorted by the giant slab of toasted sourdough underpinning everything.
Apart from the pork chop, prices are very reasonable. An excellent bottle of well chilled Rose d'Anjou is only £22, the tapas are priced by volume and that steak bruschetta is on offer in the lunch menu costing £15 for three courses.
The desserts feature some unusual offerings, including a chocolate mousse crumble which is sensational. The crumble is made with cracked and crushed almonds and pistachio, giving welcome texture to the velvety, airy mousse, which has an intensity of flavour as only the French manage to do with these desserts. The lemon tart short crust has dampened and lost its texture, but the lemon and meringue are spot on.
My big gripe with lunchtime restaurants is the length of time it takes to complete a meal. Surely, most of us are at work at this time and managing to escape to a restaurant for an hour to get lunch should be easy? This lunch took almost two hours. A mention when you sit down that you're in a hurry should help.
44 is an authentic French restaurant and the talented chef Paul Caulet produces beautiful and unusual dishes. It's better than many restaurants we used to visit around the Charente region, which is where M Rabillat is from.
The room is atmospheric, the food is top class. Once the service is slicked up and M Rabillat relaxes a bit, this will be a top choice for many repeat visitors. I know I'll be back soon.
Black pudding £3.60
Lamb belly £3.60
Mackerel bruschetta £7.50
Pork chop £20
Steak bruschetta £7
Choc mousse £6
Lemon tart £6
Rosé d'Anjou £22