Belfast Telegraph

Restaurant Review: Café Conor

11a Stranmillis Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9066 3266.

By Joris Minne

This is old cuisine, Ulster-style, at its best. The food is wholesome, well-priced and quick. The service is exemplary and the room itself is attractively bright.

One of the most elegant districts of Belfast is also home to some top value for money cafes and bistros. Stranmillis has a good share of café culture which includes the Yellow Door restaurant in the Ulster Museum, Maggie May's, the Black Bear and Sinnamon. Facing Botanic Gardens is Café Conor, housed in painter William Conor's old studio. He must have looked out from the front door to the Ulster Museum on the other side of the road and wondered if his work would ever grace the walls of the place.

Now they hang alongside some of Ireland's best-loved works, including those of John Lavery, John Luke and Colin Middleton.

And when you walk into Café Conor and look up to the high ceiling, with its huge lantern skylight, you can immediately tell why this must have made such a successful artist's studio. Even on a dark day, that natural light seems to come from heaven itself.

It's a family favourite for us and regular visits over the years have been largely driven by all day breakfasts featuring vast structures of waffles, quality Ulster Fries which feature unusually good bacon, black pudding and sausages, and a list of healthy alternatives.

It's also a successful lunchtime operation, drawing in a peculiar range of academics and university staff from nearby Queen's. You can tell by the beards, glasses and narrow range of Millets fleeces. But don't let this put you off because the service is streetwise, youthful and cheerful.

Café Conor has a night time persona which I had never experienced until last week when I was told that the place had undergone a refurb and had appointed new chefs. There was also a new menu.

Going there in the dark had the same impact as seeing a teacher or colleague out of class or work. It was slightly wrong. Going to a café at night is not like going to a restaurant. There is a difference in the sense of occasion. A trip to Café Conor at tea time or later should be viewed therefore as an alternative to cooking your own dinner, and not an evening out. This is meant positively. There is a place for a restaurant which is more functional than entertaining. Having said that, it's warm and intimate and the staff are alert and fast.

It took some time to identify the changes resulting from the refurb but then we noticed the exposed brick walls under the giant Neil Shawcross canvasses and that long table running down the middle of the restaurant has been ditched in favour of individual twos and fours instead. But everything else including the banquette, booths and bar remain where they were. Not so much a refurb as a minor makeover, and no bad thing because why fix something that isn't broken?

The menu is straightforward, featuring burgers, small plates, noodles and pasta, salads and a decent children's range. Four of us share small plates of lamb skewers (excellent, juicy and spiced, mouth-filling flavours), Jack Daniels blackened pork belly (Okay, but are more like mini ribs), salt and chilli chicken (as good as All Seasons', crumbly, brittle and peppery) and chilli and lime hummus with flat bread (bland and did not taste of very much).

The adviser is happy with the Thai red chicken curry which is served unusually with basmati rice. She liked it well enough. Pan-fried crab cakes with chilli jam were a hit, generous and with some good flavours. The fish pie was simple and wholesome, featuring salmon and some hake, but without a few capers or a bit of egg, it is a bit flat. The burger is an outstanding feat and easily makes the top three in Belfast thanks to the quality and juicy texture of the meat, the brioche bun and the general cartoon look of it.

Desserts are proper Ulster and the rhubarb crumble sets new standards with its warmth and gentle acidity playing off nicely with the shortbread-like crumbs.

Café Conor knows how to inject magic into its breakfasts and brunch - it's a very attractive proposition which has lost none of its allure over the years; lunchtimes are busy and happy and the mood is upbeat. The evening experience is a different matter. I always associate daytime Café Conor with a touch of excitement and anticipation. The evening offers a degree of calm and simplicity which will have its appeal.

The bill

Small plates x 4.................................£15

Burger...................................................£9

Fish pie...............................................£12

Thai chicken.......................................£12

Crab cakes............................................£9

Rhubarb crumble...........................£5.50

Banoffee..............................................£5

Glass shiraz x 2....................................£9

Pint Peroni......................................£4.70

Diet Coke.............................................£2

Limonata.........................................£2.20

TOTAL £85.40

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