Restaurant review: Belle Isle Bistro
Belle Isle Castle and Private Island, Lisbellaw, Fermanagh. Tel: 028 6638 7231
Restaurants come in all shapes, sizes, price ranges, styles and quality. Some fixate on the furniture and lighting, others on the quality of service and food while those who focus on the views should arouse suspicion, largely because the view is often used to provide a distraction obscuring the mediocrity elsewhere in the operation.
Belle Isle Bistro is a lot of things but mediocre is not one of them. It sits very comfortably and reassuringly in the middle of a private island which it shares with Belle Isle Castle, a magnificent country home you can rent, some very tastefully restored and reconfigured stables which are now self-catering apartments and cottages, a walled garden, acres of woods and views south to the shores of Upper Lough Erne.
You may be familiar with the former cookery school which was based here until recently. Now cook, fishing trip arranger and Ardennes man Jerome Nicolle has opened the bistro to the public as a regular, all welcome, bookable restaurant.
The remoteness of the island is a key attraction but paradoxically so is its 10-minute proximity to the main Belfast to Enniskillen road. Uniquely, if you are lucky enough to be able to book the Castle for a self-catering holiday break (13 bedrooms, loads of roaring fires and reception rooms, tons of charm all wrapped in impeccably styled posh rustic chic - what more could the well-heeled family, group of pals, or wedding party want?), the restaurant will provide quality sustenance in case your tin opener fails. It also has a proper little bar just as you might find a 'petit zinc' in a village cafe in France.
A keen game angler and co-ordinator of fishing parties, Jerome and Belle Isle estate manager Matt Stuart discussed mutually desirable business ideas last year, agreed terms and reopened the cookery school as the Belle Isle Bistro. And very good it is too.
Jerome is not your fancy-pants cheffy kind of cook. For him the simple pleasures of line caught wild salmon from Donegal, duck, woodcock and pheasant from the estate and enough savoir-faire to make a perfect chocolate fondant, are enough to produce a quality meal, the kind you would enjoy in an old fashioned French family get together.
He makes a point of keeping things simple almost as if to underline the point made by great chefs that you shouldn't mess with ingredients when they are this good.
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Four of us are here for dinner and expectations are high: private island, French chef, castle - this better be good.
A glistening little thick cut slab of mildly smoked salmon comes as an amuse-bouche on a slice of freshly toasted Keady loaf. Almost raw, it provides a moment of primeval pleasure. Served with Jerome's choice of a chilled Riesling, it's memorable.
To show how versatile that Riesling is, he brings forth a foie gras of duck which is velvety, buttery and packed with those rich, gamey flavours. Coming in from the damp woodlands outside, the relationship between the musty, sweet late autumn smells and scents of the air and the flavour of the pate is remarkable and provides another dimension of joy.
A short while later, out comes a skilfully jointed breast and leg of pheasant. It has been pan roasted and is golden and crispy and crowns a bed of colcannon with added bacon. With this comes a russet coloured cider sauce with little chunk of apple. Pheasant is rarely moist and the soft, moist colcannon with its cabbage and butter, backed up by the sauce provides the balance needed for it all to work.
And it works deliciously well. This is the food you want out in the middle of the countryside, something from the surrounding environment, especially when it's Belle Isle, and dishes which match the simple honesty of the bistro itself.
A chocolate fondant which is perfectly executed rounds off the evening. Everybody's happy, we stagger back to our respective bedrooms in the castle.
It all went too quickly. That's the thing about Fermanagh, the county with its own time zone (slow): a night out in Belle Isle Bistro goes by too fast.
Foie gras x 4 £24
Pheasant X 4 £64
Fondant x 4 £20