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…