So much restaurant stuff is happening on instagram these days I get famished just looking at the pictures. I’m a sucker for images of clever, well composed dishes. I was even tempted recently by a picture of deep fried warty sea squirts, that’s how appetising some of these pictures are.
As soon as I came across Frae’s instagram I went to book a table. Except that you can’t. It’s walk-ins only from Wednesday to Sunday. I turned up on Friday early lunch time last week but a card on the door said it was closed due to some maintenance issue. I was furious. Bloody instagram drawing me in like an eejit after spending half an hour trying to park the car and all.
A return the next day confirmed two things. It’s good to be patient (turns out the electricity supply had failed: for a restaurant on a Friday coming up to Christmas when every bit of business matters, this is not good) and it’s OK to fall for those instagram images.
The tiny restaurant has two tables and some shelving with high stools. Ten diners would pack it out. It is brightly sterile but the two lads, James Fox and Shaun Tinman, managing and cooking in Frae have an abundance of charm and warmth, enough to heat the Ulster Hall.
The menu is as starkly simple as the room. There are four breakfasts (served all day – it opens from 10am until 4.30pm), three sandwiches, three lunch dishes and a couple of desserts. But each item is so compelling, so attractive, it’s very hard to make the choice. A family of four comes in and immediately orders the chicken sandwich. This is described in the menu as “chicken cutlet, tarragon special sauce and pickles.” What actually appears is a wobblingly tall burger with fried chicken and loads of bits housed within a floury bap.
But we want to see some proper cheffing and order a gubeen and mushroom pithivier, roast cauliflower soup, a chicken, barley and leeks broth and beef shin stew with mash and greens. To get as broad a view as possible we order the fried potatoes too. It’s a lot for lunch time but I am intrigued to see whether they live up to their insta images. And of course, they do.
The standard of cooking in Frae is completely beyond expectation. What looks like a wee independent grab and go coffee joint is serving up food which rubs shoulders with nearby Noble. Chef Shaun Tinman has achieved something rarely seen: a menu of instantly recognisable Irish and Ulster standards as if interpreted by a high-end Nordic talent.
The pithivier is not the usual round little pie but rather a slice taken from a larger bake which Tinman has generously stuffed with the savoury, similarly textured mix of gubeen cheese and oyster mushrooms from Hearty Growers in east Belfast. It is creamy and weighty, the super intense flavour of the gubeen balanced against a mustard sauce and tangy gem salad which is sparklingly bitter-sweet with shallot dressing.
The roast cauliflower soup which is accompanied by two doorsteps of Barra’s sourdough and a lump of Kearney blue cheese is deliciously reassuring on this winter’s day.
These would have been enough for lunch but greed is hard to resist and the following chicken and barley broth draped in kale and leeks is bursting with a flavour so powerful it sets a new standard. It is both ancient in its content and modern in its taste featuring delicate herb notes as well as great depth.
The advisor’s beef shin stew has a similar impact. It looks like a standard dish with the mound of mash and greens, but it is like a fine Belgian carbonade with a velvety, buttery mousseline.
Finally, a cinnamon bread and butter pudding which has been baked and glazed to provide a cracking layer of caramel comes with a room-temperature custard to make a perfect pairing.
Frae’s cooking is fine dining disguised as your dinner. I cannot wait to see what Shaun and James do when they open the upstairs room, get a licence and do evenings.
Soup, cheese and pickle plate £8
Chicken and barley broth £11
Beef shin stew £13
Fried potatoes £4