Restaurant review: Bistro Souls, Belfast
89 Dublin Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9508 5917
The Food Standards Agency of Northern Ireland last week revealed that the four factors foremost in the minds of people in NI, Wales and England before eating out are, in order of preference, hygiene and cleanliness, service, price and recommendations or reviews.
You may have spotted that there is no mention of food. And while this may appear at first absurd, on reflection, it kind of makes sense if your business is standards rather than food quality. Nobody wants to eat their breakfast, lunch or dinner in a sewer pit. A hair in your soup is bad, but when you see those stories about rats climbing over the buns in the chiller, you start to realise the scale of the job on the FSA's hands.
If you are one of those who ticked the four boxes then you'll love Souls. It's clean, the service is impeccable, the price is right (if you choose carefully) and it seems to be receiving good comments on the review sites (not that you should pay any attention to them - stick instead with this column to be sure).
So what about the food in Souls? Well, it's good, sometimes very good, but it somehow seems not to fit into this pleasant, modern but non-descript dining room. The review algorithm I work with is based on the Joris Minne Principle of Successful Eating Out: service, food and comfort and their sub-divisions of quick, relaxed, knowledgeable and not-in-yer-face service; food which is rustic, refined, traditional, conventional, mad, experimental, ethnic, etc; and furniture which you can sit on for an hour or two without blocking blood flow to your legs and prompting the early onset of gangrene; lighting which allows you to read a menu but not to notice the wrinkles around your partner's eyes, to see the food on the plate without your head casting a dark round shadow over it, the kind of lighting which imbues a place with a sense of cosiness, atmospheric warmth and flattering back-lit glamour; and, critically, a total and utter lack of draughts.
These are the markers I use when reviewing any restaurant. The price component is very much related to the value for money offered so if a burrito costs £6 and a wagyu burger £35, you know to make the adjustment and calibrate accordingly.
But getting back to the food, Souls has a good chef and the lunch time offer arrives quickly, without fuss and with enough panache to make you sit up and notice. The beetroot salad starter is a lush affair featuring at the bottom of a mound of rocket and little balls of goats cheese. It's munchy and fresh and healthy.
The halibut on a bed of crushed saffron potatoes and a lobster bisque is a sure sign of care in the kitchen: the fish (from Conor Mulholland) is perfectly cooked, slippery, pearly white and generous. The bisque is not a huge success. Having just had one last week in Bangor's Boat House, it's still fresh in my mind, and no real crustacean flavours are coming through this one.
But apart from that, it's good food. The issue for Souls is that it is not entirely what it seems. At night it becomes an Asian restaurant featuring loads of Bengali and Indian dishes, freshly baked naan, tandoori monkfish, Gilafi Seekh kebab, paneer tikka, aubergine parmigiana… Wait, what? Among the Asian dishes are some western and Middle Eastern inflitrators: pork belly with dauphinoise potatoes, apple compote, savoy cabbage and Armagh cider jus; ribeye and sirloin from Moira and pan grilled duck breast (with spiced red cabbage, fondant potato, plum compote and orange glaze).
There may be a market for this kind of mash-up menu but for me it destroys any semblance of an identity for a restaurant. Any branding student will tell you identity is the key factor you're trying to build and develop. Which is why innovative restaurants like Eipic and OX tend to move its supporters along slowly with their own changes to classic menus.
A good restaurant has a reputation and a clear identity. You don't go to Hadskis for a chicken tikka masala and you don't go to the Khyber for a roast chicken dinner. This crashing of west and east just by putting a Dexter burger on the menu at lunch time and replacing it with tandoori masala at night won't do at all. It's one or the other.
Having said that, Souls is a good spot for busy people at lunch time. The location at the top of Dublin Road means on-street parking is plentiful and the service will get you in and out within an hour if you want.
I'll be back but more out of curiosity to see how long an identity-free restaurant can survive before opting for one look or another. I hope they do this soon because Souls deserves to succeed.
Beetroot salad £5.55
Fish & Chips £9.95
Garlic naan £2.55