Restaurant review: Bengal Brasserie in Belfast
339 Ormeau Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9064 7516
The acorn that grows into a great oak tree is, in neighbourhood development terms, the pub and the Indian double act. The Ormeau Road acorn was the Errigle and the Bengal Brasserie. Thanks to these two centres of craic, ceoil agus bia an entire barrio grew around them. Now the upper Ormeau Road is a boho quartier of independent cafes, restaurants and bars.
To achieve full Avocado-on-Sourdough status, such a district also needs a post office, bike shop, coffee saloon (not Nero, Starbucks or Costa), grocer's, butcher's, bakery, crafts'n'cards boutique, hand-made jewellery unit and a few ATMs. If you can throw in a couple of bookies, a taxi rank and a park, you've struck latin quarter gold.
But today we are interested in one half of the Ormeau acorn. While the Errigle has been on the corner of James Street since the 30s, the Bengal Brasserie marks its 30th anniversary this year. By any standard and for any restaurant, this is a major achievement. It says two things: it's popular because it's good and it has maintained that reputation in the face of incremental growth in the number of restaurants not only in its immediate vicinity but across the city. It's still doing the job even in the face of fiercer than ever competition and a very fickle, trend-conscious customer base.
A recent visit to Bengal Brasserie soon revealed why this previous winner of the Irish Curry Awards is still so loved. Unexpectedly modern, the flock wallpaper has been banished and replaced with cool lighting, rosewood panelling, creamy leather banquette booths and dark wood furniture. It is a pleasant and mildly exciting place to sit in although anyone who prefers warmth over cooler temperatures would do well to ask to be given a table at the back.
Lutfer Ahmed is in charge of a very polished front of house team. Servers here are attentive and discreet. It's all very classy and posh yet it is far from up itself. There is a warmth in the hospitality which is unmistakeably genuine.
The menu is not entirely conventional either. Among the pakoras, bhajees and pooris are lush and textured aloo chaat, masala chilli squid and lamb taka tak, a typical Lahore dish so called for the sound of the spatula being banged edge on to break up the meat.
Lamb is the thing here. The palok dish features lamb which appears to have been through the taka tak process and blended in with spinach and garlic. This belter of a dish is a treasure, full of deep meaty flavours balanced with the soft tang of the spinach and garlic after-glow. I loved this so much I took one home as a take-away for lunch next day.
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The chicken dishes are good too. The quality of the chicken is noticeable. Too many Indian and Chinese restaurants are getting away with swamping cheap chicken in gallons of sauces and bales of spices but you can immediately tell when you cut into the meat and find some gentle resistance and good fibre structure as well as flavour as opposed to soft-structured, often frozen meat which has no flavour.
Here the mirch masala, chargrilled chicken cooked in chilli pickle sauce has a noticeable sourness which works beautifully with the meat and soft naan. Jaljal has all the breathiness of tamarind and the padina murg in which the chicken meat is shredded to absorb its accompanying coriander and basil all the better is memorable.
There is some serious cooking in the Bengal Brasserie and while I have sympathy with Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express in Soho who accuses most south Asian restaurants in Ireland and GB of not cooking authentic dishes, the food here is stand-out. A more considered wine list would complement the variety of regional dishes available here. I've gone off the lager and curry pairing and while the Bengal Brasserie has some half decent merlot and shiraz on offer, it would raise their game considerably if they had half a dozen of those fabulous and new mid-range German, Portugese, Spanish or Hungarian reds and whites to choose from. I'm thinking Peth Wetz pinot noir, Esporao, Pintia and dry furmint tokaji (Direct Wine Shipments and Vineyard on Ormeau Rd have great choices).
Massala chilli squid ....................... £8.95
Lamb taka tak ................................ £7.95
Lamb palok.................................... £15.95
Padina murg.................................. £16.95
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