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.