Thackeray described Belfast as "a hearty place". Thriving, and prosperous - as if it had roast-beef for dinner.
Thackeray described Belfast as "a hearty place". Thriving, and prosperous - as if it had roast-beef for dinner. After a bit of an interruption it seems prosperity is returning. As I took a wee dander (as the locals say) through the city centre, I noticed that the first boutique hotel had opened. And that restaurants were charging London prices. Belfast, evidently, has money in its pockets.
Which is why it's so hard to get a reservation at Cayenne. With its dark-chocolate leather and burnt-orange walls, it feels warm and comfortable. It's the kind of place where you could easily lose an afternoon. I tested the famous Irish welcome by arriving an hour early for my table. The waiter didn't mind. Nor did he mind getting me a table with access to a power point (even though it meant running an extension from the kitchen).
It started me thinking about the night before, when I had been dining at Claridge's in London. The sommelier criticised my friend for ordering a "nice" New Zealand chardonnay. As I mulled over the fact that we paid £400 for the privilege of being talked down to, the Cayenne waiter returned with my water, a tumbler full of ice on the side, and a smile. It was "nice" to be looked after so courteously.
What with this being Ireland, I expected a selection of soda farls, stoneground wheaten and potato bread. Instead, the waiter arrived with a basket of uninspiring Eurobread. Which meant I was forced to slather everything with the rich Irish butter. Forced, you hear me.
It cheered me up to see asparagus on the menu. Spring isn't spring without asparagus. To me, it conjures up the loamy mystery of the forest floor before the summer heat arrives. Give me a dozen smooth, steamed spears, with the gentlest bite remaining, and I'm a happy man. Hollandaise on the side, of course, wouldn't do any harm.
At Cayenne, the asparagus (£7.50) came with a lemon and thyme butter - and a perfectly poached duck egg. All it took was a twist of fresh black pepper to create culinary perfection. The dish, like a lot of dishes on the menu, had a touch of Ready Steady Cook about it. And I don't say that in a patronising, I'm-a-sommelier-at-Claridge's type of way. It's just that Cayenne is about simple ingredients, simply cooked.
And that's no coincidence. Paul Rankin, who owns Cayenne, is a regular on Ready Steady Cook. But he's more than a celebrity chef. His restaurant Roscoff brought Belfast its first Michelin star. A few years ago he recognised that the public were ready for something other than fine dining. So he closed Roscoff and opened Cayenne. He's still waiting for his star, but Cayenne was recently included in the Time Out top 10 restaurants in the UK.
The food is a product of a travelled man, and every dish has a little something to lift it out of the ordinary. Whether it's the caraway in the onion soup (£4.50) or the pistou in the spring vegetable broth (£4). Rankin's signature dish is the salt'n'chilli squid (£8) with chilli jam, aioli and napa slaw. I was glad to see suckers on the squid. It reminded me of what I was eating. I always think that perfectly round calamari has the look - and taste - of the factory.
The squid was highly seasoned. I didn't have a problem with that, but the three middle-aged businessmen on the table next to mine called it heavy handed. They said the same about the ham hock and spring pea risotto (£7). Maybe they had high blood pressure. But it was worth ordering the risotto, just to see the vivid green of the peas next to the pink of the ham. And such a gloopy, savoury union.
If anything, the seasoning on the tea-smoked duck breast (£17) wasn't heavy-handed enough. I wanted to taste the tea. By way of apology, the kitchen sent out a dish of queenie scallops. They were fried crisp, but cracked under gentle pressure to reveal soft creamy-white insides - perfect for dipping into the black bean vinaigrette. The little queenies had come all the way from the Isle of Man. But their journey was worthwhile. And so was mine. E
Cayenne, 7 Ascot House, Shaftesbury Square, Belfast 028 9033 1532
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