Restaurant review: We try out Café Parisien
Cleaver House, Donegall Square North, Belfast Tel: 028 9590 4338
The cradle of the culinary arts is in Lyon, France, where food is regarded as high art. It boasts a raft of Michelin-starred restaurants and is home to Paul Bocuse. Even the best restaurant in Paris, owned by legendary chef Alain Ducasse, is called Aux Lyonnais. An ancient and tiny bistro, it is the perfect encapsulation of everything you ever thought of as being a typical French café restaurant with its rickety chairs, zinc bar, servers in long black aprons and faded mirrors on the walls.
In Belfast we love French food but have been distracted in recent years by other culinary traditions including Chinese and Indian, Thai and Italian and, more recently, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and even Egyptian. Yes we have a brace of Michelin-starred restaurants, but these are very distinctly and brilliantly new Irish. They ain't French.
The opening of Café Parisien in the Robinson & Cleaver building may herald a new dawn of blanquettes, cassoulets and bouillabaisses. Two recent outings, one in the café downstairs and one in the swanky, velvety upstairs, produced generally good results.
Downstairs, the all-day café goes from breakfast 'til evening serving convincing crepes, pastries and coffees. More than anything, it's the speed and efficiency of the café that makes it work well.
As plain as the café is, the opulence of upstairs is conversely and immediately impressive. There is a belle epoque vibe thanks largely to the actual building itself. The Robinson & Cleaver edifice is Belfast's very own little piece of the belle epoque and the huge windows overlooking Donegall Square to city hall let in the kind of light few other cafes and restaurants enjoy. It was very busy on the Saturday afternoon we visited, and the three of us were shown to a cosy table near a window. A few minutes later we were offered an upgrade to table number one. Happy enough where we were, we didn't want to appear ungrateful and upped stakes to the new position.
Ladies and gentlemen, let's be emphatically clear: it is the best restaurant table in Belfast. Housed within the corner turret, the marble top table surrounded by the fitted circular banquette which could seat six people of varying sizes, offered views to city hall across the square, down Chichester Street and up Wellington Place. It presented the city centre in its full glory. If ever there was a part of Belfast that still says "capital city", it's right here.
There will be fights to the death to reserve this table, so get in quick. Don't worry too much about the quality of the food - your friends and family will be hugely impressed when you take them to table one.
As it happens, the food can be very good. Some of the dishes were particularly memorable, while others might best be forgotten. But by and large it's decent, classic and recognisably French food. Outstanding scallops - big, juicy and at the height of the season - were served up with a dollop of sauce vierge and tiny lardons. A plain risotto was textbook creamy and rich with a hint of bite in the Arborio rice. And a green salad with goat's cheese fritters, excuse me, beignets, was lush and entertaining.
A bisque featuring beautifully fat mussels and more scallops was slightly offbeat due to some mysterious flavour impairment. It was quickly acknowledged by the kitchen and immediately removed from the bill.
The cote de boeuf was vast and very tasty but tough. The roast hake was perfect, glistening and enhanced by the caper butter sauce, French beans and olives. Profiteroles were stuffed with crème de café and were the best I've had in Ireland. Ever.
Café Parisien is blousy and glamorous but far from intimidating. Nor is it up itself. Servers are friendly and approachable and the place is packed with shoppers, family groups and other adventurers. At night, it must be one of the loveliest places to sit in. I look forward to that.
Cote de boeuf £28
Crepe suzette £7