Restaurant review: Belfast's French Village
343-353 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel 028 9066 4333
Ashley French and family have been gently shouldering their way onto the Belfast restaurant stage for some years now. It started with their buns and cakes supplied to outlets across the city. Then they opened their own cafes in Stranmillis and eventually Botanic Avenue, as well as catering operations on board HMS Caroline and elsewhere. Then last year they went up another notch and opened Baker Street on Belmont Road and the French Village, a relatively grand affair on the Lisburn Road, a place with a touch of Parisian salon de the.
The icing on the cake was the appointment of Damian Tumilty as head chef, which makes this French Village the flagship operation of the group.
Tumilty's great achievement until then was to dish out seriously good meals in Cafe Vaudeville, which relied less on its culinary reputation and more on its interpretation of Gomorrah, a venue of fun, dance, drink and all sorts of naughty cabaret entertainment. Food was definitely not a priority.
Yet despite Cafe Vaudeville's light entertainments appeal, Tumilty persevered with the braised ox cheek and sea trout, the finer ends of Italian pasta dishes and some unparalleled risottos.
Anyone who knew anything about good food knew this was a hidden secret and that the best time to go was early evening, before all the madness started.
But now, here he is cooking like a French man and surprising the hell out of the Lisburn Road set who still have a penchant for the bigger dinner.
The dining room is one of the most pleasant and comfortable in south Belfast. Beautifully lit, full of ersatz and nods to a belle epoque, the vibe is very informal but sparky, lively and welcoming.
The evening menus are well embedded now and while the Lisburn Road appetite for fancy food is limited (they really do prefer their pizzas and big dinners and those occasional forays to Shu are more for the big social, or family occasions), French Village should be ideally situated as the provider of quality but conventional meals.
And that's where Damian Tumilty may find himself in a kind of Cafe Vaudeville 2.0 situation.
Tumilty is one of our top chefs and while his dinner menu includes some extraordinarily well-presented and cooked offers, one can't help think he's being held back by some kind of restraining order. Nothing too fancy, you hear, Damian?
Crab cakes are spicy and rich, packed with luscious crabby saltiness and depth. Pickled beetroot and St Tola goat's cheese mousse comes with shards of chewy meringue (visually exciting but otherwise an unnecessary impediment) and is a starter which does what it's supposed to do: make you want more. It's the first time I've seen the St Tola so white. Chris Fearon used to mix in the ash coating with the cheese to create a mousse which was a weirdly attractive light gun-metal grey. It wasn't everybody's favourite, but I loved its alien appearance.
A rump of lamb comes with two little shaped hemispheres of crispy lamb neck, charred cabbage and spring onion mash (champ).
The lamb is pink and perky, more towards medium and all the better for it. The flavour from the crispy skin is intensely delicious and the accompanying cabbage an unexpectedly good companion.
The adviser's sea bream with romesco sauce and olive oil mash is a hit, and generous, and the red peppery, Mediterranean notes of the sauce match well. Daughter 2's brisket sandwich hits the spot exactly, tender, dark and full of beefy flavours.
It's the French Village, so it would be disrespectful to go past desserts. A pistachio tart featuring raspberries and creme anglaise is the crowning glory of the dinner; light, nutty, mousse-like sponge in a brittle short crust pastry is soothing and comforting, the raspberries providing tang and mild bitterness. (Have the suggested glass of Moscato with it as it's neither syrupy not too sweet and well balanced with this tart.)
The restaurant really ought to be a neighbourhood favourite. Maybe locals don't realise they do dinners now, or maybe they prefer to go into the town centre.
But believe me, when neighbouring Shu finally closes for its major refurb, it will be hard to get a table in French Village.
Brisket sandwich £10.00
Crab cakes £7.50
St Tola's goat's cheese £7.50
Sea bream £14.00
Broccoli side £3.50
Glass Moscato £3.95
Pistachio tart £4.00