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…
Traditionally, I haven’t thought much about money when it comes to food and drink; or at least, not as much as I should given what’s left once the bills have been paid. My chief focus has always been whether the thing I’m consuming tastes good or not. The cost is very much a secondary concern.
I couldn’t tell you how much I spent on my meal at The Waterside Inn – a restaurant generally considered to be ludicrously expensive – earlier this year. I couldn’t say how much I spent at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester – a place very much in the same price mould – either. The reason is that I simply don’t care. I had a great time at both, so however much they cost, it was clearly worth it.*
Nevertheless, in the last few months value for money is something I’ve been thinking about more often. The change in mindset, I’m sure, is almost entirely down to working my way through the Foods To Try Before You Die list.
Tasting a £50 bottle of Dom Pérignon 2000, for example, I couldn’t get its value out of my head. It wasn’t so much “have I made a mistake spending this amount on a bottle of champagne?”, more “is this bottle worth the £100+ a lot of retailers are selling it at and is the price I got it for the bargain it appears?”.
Money was a big thing again when I wrote my latest piece on potted shrimp. It was so good yet so cheap relative to almost everything else on my list, how could I not think about it? Am I wasting cash pursuing expensive items when there are simple things like shrimp that offer so much bang for my buck?
But I’ve never thought so much about the cost of food or drink as I have with the bottle of Hennessy XO Cognac I bought a few months back. At £92, it was easily the most I’ve ever spent on a single bottle of alcohol outside a restaurant, and I wasn’t even a big brandy fan! From the moment I bought it, right up until the moment I poured my first glass, “what the hell were you thinking?” ran through my head.
This wasn’t a case of ‘taste first, ask money questions later’; the price was always at the forefront of my mind. The cognac couldn’t just be good, it had to be at least £92 good, or I was going to kick my arse down to the bank to shed tears over all the money I’d pissed up the wall.
To be fair to Hennessy, they did a lot to put my mind at ease just with the appearance of the bottle. I’d read a lot of reviews online and been told it was a very special drink – the finest XO in its price range, according to consensus – but it wasn’t much of a looker. In photos it appeared plain and dull; a £20 slut instead of a £92 beauty.
But I spent a good 15 minutes marvelling at its magnificence after pulling it from the box; holding it up to the light and admiring it from every angle. The pictures had done scant justice to how handsome the bottle is, with the glorious maple-syrup-coloured liquid inside. I could imagine it behind the bar of a stereotypical private gentleman’s club, where well-to-do toffs sit in cosy, red-leather armchairs, puffing cigars and discussing the politics of the day.
It looked expensive enough to have cost £92. In fact, it could’ve pulled off £250. It was all very reassuring.
But as I left it on the shelf and waited for that special occasion to come along where I’d give it a try – my birthday, as it happened – doubts started to creep back in. Sure, it looks good enough, but can it taste good enough? They say with wine once you go beyond £20, prices tend to move further and further away from the true value – is it the same with cognac? And what if I realise that I’m just not a big fan of brandy? Money down the drain, that’s what!
I decided the time to bite the bullet was after a nice celebratory meal at The Lime Tree in Didsbury. I was in a good mood, I wanted a spirit to cap off the evening, the moment just seemed right. Following instructions read online, I poured a shot and a half into a brandy glass** and cupped my hands around it, allowing my body heat to warm it gently for around seven or eight minutes. I held it up to look at the colour – the liquid amber perhaps even more beautiful in the glass than in the bottle – and then stuck my nose in to gather the aromas.
I probably shoved my snout too close because all I got was burning alcohol at first, but eventually the bouquet came: heady, complex, brilliant. I’ve heard people say they’d buy Hennessy XO for the smell alone and I could see why. If I’d had the time, I could’ve spent as long sniffing it as I did staring at the bottle when I first took it out of the box.
However, I couldn’t wait that long. It was time to taste it; time to find out whether all the build up was worth it. More importantly, it was time to find out whether all the money was worth it.
It was. Oh dear god it was.
Ambrosia, soma, nectar; any deity’s drink you can think of would be a suitable descriptive term for the glorious elixir that passed my lips. In my heart, I hadn’t really believed that any drink could justify this sort of price tag, but it did, unquestionably. It was a seminal moment; with one sip, I became a huge brandy fan and began to realise just how good beverages can be. I’ve imbibed some very nice stuff in my time, but this was a world apart. It’s by far and away the best drink I’ve ever tasted.***
Hennessy XO wasn’t on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die, but I feel like it should’ve been. The only cognac on there is the £1,350 Rémy Martin Louis XIII and even though it’s meant to be the very best, somehow I can’t see it living up to its price.
To do so, it’d have to be 14.5 times better than the Hennessy XO. And I don’t for one second believe that’s possible.
*I should stress that had either of these restaurants delivered a terrible meal then I’d probably still be bitching and whining about the cost on my deathbed. I care a lot more about price when I have a bad time!
**I fear connoisseurs would complain about the large balloon glass, with its wide mouth – snifters are preferred as they hold the aroma in. But the glasses were a wedding gift, gorgeous LSA glassware that match our collection, and they’d spent a good month sat next to the cognac helping it to look pretty. It would’ve felt wrong to drink from anything else.
***I’ve said before I don’t really do tasting notes. But these from the manufacturer seem right on the money:
Aroma: The first wave, rich in dried fruit aromas such as prunes or dried figs overcomes you. The aromas evolve to more dense notes of chocolate & black pepper, mellowed by cinnamon, clove & cardamom spices.
Taste: Very balanced on the palate, X.O confirms the aromas discovered by scent: dried fruit & chocolate. Elegant & robust, it reveals balance, roundness and harmony among aromas underlined by the strength of peppery notes & vegetable fragrances from the oak. A lovely long after taste is enrobed in velvet, conferring the last sweet notes of cinnamon & vanilla.