No sooner had Lady Gaga and Co stormed the city for the MTV Europe Music Awards, than the Christmas lights were being switched on at City Hall. Next up is 2012, and a Titanic Festival to mark the 100th anniversary of the Belfast-built liner’s maiden voyage.
As it transitions from Troubles to tourism, however, you’d have to wonder whether Belfast’s restaurant scene has kept pace. The Observer’s Jay Rayner recently trashed the “miserable cooking” at Made in Belfast, Northern producers have never been ones to proclaim themselves from the mountaintops, and Michael Deane was stripped of the country’s only Michelin Star this January.
For years, Deane has been the poster boy of the city’s restaurant scene, and he continues to run six restaurants, including the flagship Deane’s and a bustling Deli Bistro on Bedford Street.
He’s a branding whizz, too. When we arrive at Deane’s at Queens, a slick bar and grill in the leafy university quarter, the first thing we notice is a large painting on a wall behind the host. It’s the celebrity chef himself, holding a carrot in one hand and a cleaver in the other.
We’re here for Sunday lunch, a set menu pricing two courses at £18/€21 or three at £22.50/€26.30. We’re not the only ones. Fellow diners include families laughing over big desserts, sons treating elderly mothers, large groups of casually dressed friends — a sweetly convivial mix.
Lots of prawn cocktails are filing out of the kitchen, so I order one to start. It comes lathered on top of toasted soda bread and a layer of wiry rocket. A hen’s egg in a crumby coat squirts satisfyingly when I stab it with my fork. Unfortunately, the prawns themselves are a little watery, though a paprika-dusted Marie Rose sauce does its best to pimp them up.
L starts with a Caesar salad, a surprisingly tasty plate. The leaves are snappy, the dressing has attitude without repeating on us for hours afterwards, and the addition of fresh anchovies, slivers of red onion and shards of crispy bacon bring just enough — and not too much — of an edge.
Amongst the main courses, the grilled haddock pairs a golden-crispy surface with moist, melt-in-the-mouth flesh beneath, and it’s served with a tart shot of tartar sauce and a bed of peas that taste refreshingly of… well, peas. L’s risotto is a robust and creamy mash-up of mushrooms and celeriac, and the kids share a burger from the children’s menu, made from a very tasty mix.
The actual burger, however, could pack a boxing glove. Despite two of them going at it, an embarrassing amount is left over (kids never finish them, the waitress tells us, offering a doggy bag). It also bothers me that the burger is served without toppings, and that the homemade chips — however yummy — come pre-salted. I’d prefer those decisions left to parents.
Deane’s at Queens is a good choice for Sunday lunch. Floor-to-ceiling windows look over the Methodist College across the road, there’s enough space between the tables for our toddler to be brought on tour when he tires of the high chair, and the Botanic gardens dish up a fine post-prandial.
The design is sleekly generic, with long strips of wood, a mix of cream tiles and black slate, and music that skips seamlessly from Nick Drake to Simon & Garfunkel finessing an interior that really could be anywhere in Britain. It’s also amusing to find tubes of Brylcreem and Sure in the gents.
For dessert, we all dig into a chocolate raspberry truffle tart, with raspberry sauce and fresh cream. The tart is a velvety smooth mix of fruit and fun, but a coconut base takes us by surprise. That’s a strong enough element to warrant a mention on the menu.
Belfast’s foodie scene may not blow you away, but the steady growth of solid eateries like this, and the steady hand of Michael Deane, suggests that it could well do soon. Over a weekend visit we also enjoyed meals at Mourne Seafood and James Street South. Dig, and you’ll find the truffles.