I never intended to write a review of Paul Rankin’s Cayenne.* In fact, I never intended to visit in the first place.
It was a spur of the moment thing, born out of my wife thinking my idea of roaming around the streets of Belfast until we found a chippy wasn’t the most sensible way to ensure we had some tea on the first night of our visit.**
I expected very little from the place. Actually, that’s not true, I expected to be annoyed by it: underwhelmed by the lifeless fusion cooking of a celebrity chef trading solely on his name; pissed off that the myriad of mediocrity would cost me substantially more than takeaway haddock and chips.
Neither the menu nor the look of the restaurant really appealed to me. I booked us in simply because it was an easy walk from our hotel*** and I’d heard of it. The decision of where to go was being made late the night before we flew – I wasn’t much in the mood for shopping around.
Looking back more than two weeks on, I’m pretty glad that I didn’t.
We arrived at 6.30pm and the dining room was already buzzing; the majority of the tables filled up and everyone exuding Friday Feeling. The lighting and decor were a little garish where we were sat (see above) but this suited the atmosphere, which was much more night-out-on-the-town than relaxed or romantic evening.
Getting into the spirit, and already feeling rather better about the choice of restaurant, my wife ordered a gin and tonic and I a beer while we weighed up our food options. I’ve never been one for set menus, usually being attracted to the far more interesting-sounding dishes on the a la carte instead, but Cayenne’s seemed too good value for money to overlook. £60 would get us 3 courses each, plus a fair bottle of wine, and half the dishes sounded more appealing than those on the main menu. It was music to my wallet’s ears.
Both of us had spiced soft-shell crab to start and it became immediately clear that all my preconceptions of what Cayenne’s food would be like were wrong. Paul Rankin is a TV chef who really gives a shit.
Where I expected flaccid textures and muted flavours, I found crispy freshness and careful spicing. Where I dreaded boring combinations and stingy portions, I got refreshingly different tastes and a hearty plate. It was a dish created by someone who knew what they were doing, cooked by someone who’d been drilled to do it properly.
All the pains of the day, the two-hour delay at the airport, the trauma of leaving Britain for the first time in 8 years, the annoying wrestling fans queued up at our hotel looking to get WWE autographs, were washed away with that dish. There was nothing fancy about it; nothing that would blow anybody away. It was just simple, delicious comfort food, perfect for a man who had done nothing but moan for the last 9 hours of his life.
I’d kill for a place in Manchester that sold that crab dish, and did so by the bucket.
My main course, sesame-crusted hake with lentils and Asian greens, was very much in the same vein: simple enough to remind you of the pleasures of really good home cooking; precise enough in the combination of traditional British and Asian flavours that you know if you tried it yourself, you’d cock it right up. The plate was of the piping hot temperature I dream about when going to restaurants but so rarely ever get. All I could think about was how satisfying it all was; how for a restaurant of this style and at this price point, it really was ticking all the boxes.
Unsurprisingly, the chips I ordered as an extra also hit the spot.
The only misfire of the meal for me was the cheese I ordered for dessert – a fairly bland board, with little in the way of good biscuits or condiments to help it out. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have me wishing I’d ordered something else. Far better was my wife’s rhubarb and raspberry crumble – a flawless rendition of the classic pudding which drew a little moan of pleasure from me when I tried it. Your grandma wishes she could cook it this well.
Service was excellent throughout: efficient and friendly despite the busyness of the restaurant. It was interesting to compare this with the relative chaos we experienced at the more upmarket Deanes the following night. Guess which one of the two didn’t tack a discretionary service charge on to the bill?
We left the restaurant with big smiles on our faces, thinking we must recommend it to our friends. This need to share how good the experience was and encourage others to go is the reason why I decided to write this review.
While I’m sure my low expectations probably helped, I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant that was so firmly on the money. If Cayenne was anywhere near where I lived, I’m sure I would’ve already been back.
If you’re in Belfast city centre and you want a nice meal without too much expense or fuss, you definitely need to check it out.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*Because I wasn’t expecting to write a review, I didn’t bother taking any pictures.
**I hear there are some fine chippies in Northern Ireland. Annoyingly I didn’t get to try any.
***I say easy walk, but after taking a wrong turn and ending up miles away in a decidedly rough-looking part of the city, we ended up getting a taxi to Cayenne anyway.
Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”
Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.
My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.
My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.
I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.
The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.
The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.
Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.
Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.
And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.
But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.
My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.
My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.
Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.
I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.
The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.
We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.
Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.
**Apologies for both the starter images – I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.
***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.
****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…