Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three local restaurants

One of the many nice things about living in Belmont is that there are loads of restaurants, cafés and takeaways within walking distance.

Bennett’s has become a favourite. It’s casual enough for the evenings when I don’t feel like cooking, and with its two main courses and bottle of wine for £23 on weekdays, it won’t bankrupt you either, but it’s also smart enough for a proper meal out. We’ve taken a total of six other people to Bennett’s so far, and none has been disappointed by the ambience or the food, and usually the service is also excellent.

However... recently I’ve had a couple of gripes. It’s clearly very popular, and the business needs to manage its success rather than work on attracting more customers. Perhaps this is why they have recently stopped taking bookings for early evening meals. I only have to walk down the street, but don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing whether I can get my dinner at the end of it. If I were travelling from further afield, I wouldn’t bother.

I’m also not happy about the recent removal of a vegetarian option from the evening specials board. They will provide veggie food on demand, and, as we found when eating there with a vegan friend, will also cook a delicious vegan dish. I have absolutely no complaints about the quality of the food, but I do mind having to ask for something different. Vegetarians are not that uncommon nowadays, I would have thought, even in East Belfast, but if Bennett’s is going to restrict itself to local custom then maybe they think they don’t have to bother.

If you do go to Bennett’s and find them fully booked, you could try the Gourmet Burger Bank a few doors up, although you will probably have to queue there as well. GBB is larger and more family-oriented that Bennett’s, but luckily seems to attract the kind of parents who are training their children to eat out with consideration for others, rather than those who are trying to train other diners to cope with their unruly offspring (Pizza Express on the Lisburn Road, take note). It’s also great for vegetarians, with three burger choices. My only problem here was that the portions are huge; a mini-burger option in the evenings would be appreciated, to leave room for what look like delicious puddings.

Finally, we got around to trying Alden's last night. I’d heard good things about this legendary East Belfast high end restaurant, but of course all from carnivores. There were two vegetarian mains, one of which was a curry, which I wouldn’t order in a Western restaurant, and the other a vegetable flan which was nicely done but not that special. Wine, puddings and coffee were exceptional, service and ambience a little chilly. When we were asked how our meal was going, I did mention the lack of choice for veggies and was told they would have cooked us something else if we’d asked – not what you need to hear after you have finished your main course, they should print this on the menu.

Again, as with Bennett’s, it’s putting the onus on the customer that annoys me. When I go out to eat, all I want to do is select from the menu, not feel that I am some kind of odd person for whom special provision has to be made. Again, to me it indicates that the restaurants of East Belfast are just not that geared up to catering for a range of diets. I’m sure Alden’s would be really good for business lunches and dinners involving lots of meat dishes and alcohol, but I don’t think it’s my kind of place. I’ll be sneaking back over to South Belfast’s Cayenne for their vegetarian menu, on special occasions.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alden's is good.
I work in catering industry and recently did survey of vegetarians coming to eat at our establishments. The answer with over 1000 polled over two weeks was about 6% This surprised me as the main complaints we hear is not enough vegetarian Therefore one surmises that vegetarians are vociferous if their needs are not being met. But when they only make up 6% of our customer base and we have at least 24% of our food that is vegetarian I see no need to increase vegetarian option.

Timothy Belmont said...

It is a while since we've eaten at Aldens. We're overdue a visit! I have, however, eaten at their sister establishment in Callender Street called Aldens In The City. I had a lovely meal there a few months ago: I was on my bike, it was a fine day; and I treated myself to a lovely chilled glass of wine with the pork sandwich and their sublime chunky hand-made chips!

I was at a BBQ yesterday at Minnowburn and there were plenty of veggies there! We had a good selection of food for everyone, so we were all content.

Tim

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - You need to learn to distinguish between a fact and an opnion, as I say to my students. 'Alden's has two vegetarian mains' is a fact. 'Alden's is good' is an opinion.

However, I'm interested to learn that so few vegetarians eat at 'our establishments', wherever and whichever they may be, and also that you regard us as being adequately catered for and as being picky complainers into the bargain. It is useful information to know that I'm in more of a minority than I thought. However, you don't address my comments on the quality or attractiveness of what is available, no doubt because you think I ought to be grateful for whatever I can get.

I'm not sure if you work for Alden's, but if your attutide is typical of the NI catering business then it explains a lot, and makes me even keener to brush up my home cooking skills and go back to having regular dinner parties rather than eating out, which I would have thought would have been the last thing you need in the current economic climate.

Jenny Muir said...

Timothy - yes I had noticed Alden's have a branch in the city, and I truly hope they are doing well - I doubt that they are worse than many others in terms of their catering for vegetarians(I had an interesting exchange with James Street South on the phone just after they opened, for example, and did not go to eat there as a result) - and as I said, many aspects of our meal were excellent.

But your point about the barbie says it all - offer great food for everyone, and everyone is happy!

Timothy Belmont said...

Agreed, Jenny. I, personally, think that many restaurateurs - including those establishments which serve bar-food - need to try harder and make a lot more effort to raise their standards to higher levels.

Of course there are worthy exceptions and those who deserve credit.

It isn't as if we don't have the best produce in Northern Ireland because, I believe, we do!

I know that Michelin Stars are not, necessarily, a true yard-stick; but one restaurant in the Province with one star? What's going on? Seeming;y there is nobody out there with Heston Blumenthal's culinary prowess.

Tim

Jenny Muir said...

Timothy - You are right, we must have some of the best raw materials in the world. There is one way to raise standards, and that is for customers to offer constructive feedback, rather than just complaints when things go wrong, but I'm not sure that it's always positively received.

Maybe there should be some kind of NI food awards, or perhaps there already are? It would be great for tourism too.

dr. adder said...

Like you Jenny, I would have been underwhelmed except for the fact that I ended up with a dicky tummy from an undercooked spatchcock.

Alan in Belfast said...

Anonymous - while 6% may be vegetarian, a much greater percentage enjoy eating vegetarian food.

It's fairly common that when out for a meal - as a sausage, chicken, not so hot on steak, meat eater - to choose the vegetarian option on the menu.

Restaurants and chefs shouldn't relegate (V) as a sop to a minority of customers; they should try and make it as attractive an option as the other non-(V) dishes on the menu.

Jenny Muir said...

Alan - couldn't agree more. As a veggie who takes no offence at companions eating meat, however, I do find that the majority, when faced with a choice between say steak and a cheesy pasta thing, will go for the steak....except of course at conference buffets where there are only a limited number of veggie dishes, and they are all gone by the time I arrive!

For me, and I suspect for many others, the main criterion when eating out is that I want to be able to enjoy something I couldn't cook so well myself.

nick said...

As the other half of the "we" at Aldens, I have to say I don't mind asking for a special vegetarian dish, but what I do mind is getting one that is no better (or worse) than home cooking. When I eat out, I expect something special, imaginative and perfectly cooked. Otherwise, why bother to eat out at all?

Lee Munroe said...

Nice reviews Jenny - interesting to hear from a vegetarians perspective. Have been meaning to check out Bennetts for a while now.

Would be nice to see good reviews like this on Lookaly.com - a local review website I've setup. Feel free to check it out :)

John Self said...

I didn't realise Bennett's ever did take bookings!

I agree with Alan that it's important to note that carnivores like me (or should I say omnivores!) don't always want to eat meat, and one of the best meals I've ever had was in David Bann's veggie restaurant in Edinburgh.

Timothy, NI used to have three restaurants with one Michelin star. The other two were Shanks at Blackwood Golf Club, which closed when chef Robbie Millar wrapped his car around a tree on the way home one night, and the other was Oriel in Gilford, Co Armagh. It closed for relocation or refurbishment a few years ago and has not been seen since - presumably one of those 'refurbishments' designed merely to put off creditors.

Friends of mine spoke of their parents going to Oriel once, and they were told that on that particular night there would be no choice or menu for diners; chef would decide what they were eating (!). They went along with it, but didn't finish their meals and told the waiter that they would not be back.

Baino said...

Yep, my motivation for eating out is also to choose something that I wouldn't, our couldn't be bothered cooking at home. The problem with non vegetarian chefs is that they tend to not be very imaginative with vegetarian dishes.

I think you're a little harsh though. I mean I know meat eaters that won't eat red meat so there's usually only fish or chicken on the menu to satisfy them.

An added problem is the many 'types' of vegetarians. Some consider eating fish and or shelfish OK (although how they can call themselves vegetarian I'm not sure), others like a little cheese or don't mind milk products whereas the vegans are terribly difficult and won't eat any animal product, not even the butter/ghee that some dishes are prepared with so, . .pretty hard task for a chef to meet all needs.

With two vegan family members it's a challenge to cook something nutritious, balanced and delicious, let alone be able to order it in a restaurant.

It's pretty much the same here in traditional restaurants. A couple of veggie options on the entree and mains list but we have excellent vegetarian restaurants and of course the Asian influence (Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian) and Lebanese restaurants have a wide range of vegetarian foods that are lovely.

I think making good quality vegetarian food is probably not economically viable otherwise, they'd be into it. I know my brother and his wife focus largely on Indian and Nepalese restaurants which are almost exclusively veggie. (I'm not talking the take-away variety either but quality) Perhaps there's a niche market there for you Jen? Exclusive, high end vegetarian restaurant!

John Self said...

Oh and I can back up Timothy's praise of Aldens in the City (and the pork sandwich in particular: delicious!).

I wonder if Anonymous, when (s)he cites their premises as having 24% of their menu as vegetarian dishes, is including side orders of chips, mixed greens etc? I certainly can't think of many Belfast restaurants which would have such a high proportion of veggie mains/starters.

Made in Belfast has a couple of good sounding options on its sample menu; if the rumours are true that they are coming to Belmont Road (in the closed premises of the kitchen showroom), then I'd be down there like a shot.

Timothy Belmont said...

Made In Belfast coming to the Belmont Road? That would be great. I've eaten in their Wellington St restaurant and it's good. Don't know how many veggie options there are, though!

When I was at Alden's In The City a few months ago, the restaurateur himself, Jonathan Davis, was mine host; and a good job he's doing too.

BTW, I knew we used to have the restaurants with a Michelin Star apiece.

Apologies for going off at a tangent, again, from the original article!

Tim

Jenny Muir said...

Baino - Sydney is far more multicultural than Belfast, thus it's easier to find good Asian cuisine. I think I would distinguish between vegetarian and vegan, to my mind the former is mainstream, but that view is clearly not shared by some in NI's restaurant trade. It would be wonderful to open a high end veggie place if (i) I knew anything about cooking (ii) I had some spare cash. So I think it's a case of dream on!

John - I wondered about that figure, but then realised that if say there are 8 mains and 2 don't include meat, you can claim the menu is 25% veggie. Although the 24% might include starters, I think there were about 7 or 8 mains at Alden's in all. Anyway, very good news that Made in Belfast is coming our way!

Timothy - Tangents are welcome. I must say I'm less bothered by the Michelin star end and more interested in where I can go for a casual night out with friends, where I get good food and service, don't get made to feel like a freak, and don't pay the earth (or end up with food poisoning like poor Dr Adder). e.g. the Moghul in Botanic Ave.

Alan in Belfast said...

John - But where would Made in Belfast source another set of odd chairs and tables!

John Self said...

Hang on everyone - I said if the rumours are true! Someone at Belmont Road's Secret Day Spa told Julie from Always Paddle that they were supposed to be coming to those premises. But I haven't seen any sign of work being done, and am not even sure if the sign still says To Let. So fingers crossed, but we'll not hold our breath.

Speaking of Indian, has anyone tried the newish Jasmine in Ballyhackamore? We got a delivery from them a while ago, which I thought was terrific though Mrs Self was less enamoured. Haven't tried the restaurant yet (Mrs Self is fussy about going anywhere that hasn't been tested for Scores on the Doors yet!). Otherwise for Indian, we like Bokhara in Holywood: a short drive and always good food

nick said...

Baino - re the excellent veggie restaurants in Sydney, unfortunately there are NO veggie restaurants in Belfast. There was one in the city centre a few years back but it was started with public funding and didn't survive once the funding was withdrawn - I suspect through a combination of bad management and not enough people knowing about it. John or Alan might know the details??

John Self said...

I'm afraid I'd never heard of it, Nick!

I did a google search for vegetarian restaurant belfast and got this list from happycow.net, but it's not very inspiring, ie two Indians and Cayenne, all listed as "veggie friendly" but not exclusively veggie restaurants. I didn't realise Cayenne had a separate vegetarian menu.

There must be a gap in the market for such a venture. A friend of mine is opening a cafe on Lisburn Road; I should have suggested to him that he make it a veggie place instead.

Jenny Muir said...

OK John, will hold horses on Made in Belfast, but make a note of your other suggestions. If we're going out North Down-wards, I must confess to being rather fond of the Cultra Inn.

Nick and John - Yes there is a gap in the market, will enjoy trying your friend's cafe after work anyhow, let us know the details when it opens.

nick said...

The restaurant was Giros in Donegall Lane, which I now discover was open for 17 years. It was a Belfast Youth and Community Project and by all accounts a pretty wild, punk-influenced venue with a limited clientele!

Jenny Muir said...

Which only goes to show that not all vegetarians would want to eat in the same vegetarian restaurant...

John Ferris said...

Isn't anonymous missing the point? Just because only 6% in your poll were vegetarian doesn't mean only 6% of the population would eat a vegetarian option. I am an unrepentant meat lover but if restaurants served well thought out and exciting vegetarian options, I would eat veg probably once out of every three times.

nick said...

Also, 6 per cent of approx 500,000 people in Greater Belfast is 30,000 vegetarians - hardly an insignificant minority.

John Self said...

Donegall Lane, eh! I had to look up Google Maps to see where that was. Barely in the city centre at all, really; no wonder it never caught the mainstream veggie market.

I see incidentally that the wife of the manager of Hill St Brasserie is vegetarian, which might explain why they catered so well for veggies to begin with. (That link describes it as Ba Soba, which was its previous incarnation as a noodle bar, but the management is the same since its relaunch.)

Jenny Muir said...

John F - as long as it really is a good alternative. I draw the line at anything in puff pastry, myself.

Nick - good point! Veggies unite!

John S - You see, there's usually a personal connection; plus we've identified anouter one of the 30,000

Albarin Blanco said...

2 points i would like to make on the debate.
1. Michelin star restaurants are rarely profitable, offer an experience at the very high end which for the masses means dining there infrequently. The staff costs and food costs are very high in order to maintain the standard and the overall effort required to achieve this accolade is generally made by chefs who need their ego rubbed rather than their bank balances enhanced. Credit to Michael for sticking at his restaurant but why the endless call for more michelin star establishments.
2.Vegetarians are in the minority and as such should expect limited choice. If there is such a high demand then where are the vegetarian led restaurants. There are few because noone can make them profitable.

Peregrine's Bird Blog said...

I used to own Feasts on the Dublin Road and Fresh Pasta was our main sell and it was popular with vegetarians.

Jenny Muir said...

Albarin Blanco: 1. If a restaurant is offering what people want then it will stay in business, Michelin star or not. I think ' the masses' can distinguish between a great experience for which you pay a great deal of money very infrequently, and a rip off whoch is just pandering to someone's ego. The real test for any restaurant is repeat visits, of course. Nick has said some good things about this:

http://nickhereandnow.blogspot.com/2009/09/eating-out.html

2. In some cities there are successful and well regarded vegetarian restaurants, but in NI I accept they would have an uphill struggle. Perhaps one day, when we have more immigrants who don't regard a meal without meat as some sort of crime against humanity (ironically).

I don't mind limited choice on a mainstream menu, but I do mind if it's something I could have made at home. A good example of a place where I never feel hard done by is the Cultra Inn - several choices for starters and mains, always delicious, and great puddings too. And all I have to do , like everyone else, is say 'I'd like that, please'. And I had a nice lunch at the Hilton restaurant today.

Jenny Muir said...

Peregrine - there you go, it can be done!

Anonymous said...

If chefs think that a meal isnt a meal if it doesnt have meat on it, then frankly they havent got a clue about cooking. They could learn a lesson or 2 from eastern countries where most meals are vegetarian. Belfast chefs seem to think that a vegetarian menu must contain a kilo of cheese, I don't know where they got this idea (piss poor cookery courses?).

Jenny Muir said...

Anon- I think you may have hit on saomething here. I wonder what cookery courses here teach about vegetarianism and veganism?

Certainly, waiting staff need to be trained better - during the week I went back to Bennett's with my vegan friendm and the waitress (who I think was new) responded to her request for a vegan main course by saying she wasn't quite sure what that meant, and could my friend list what she couldn't eat?

The way to deal with this is for the waitress to take the request back to the chef, and if they don't know (which they do in Bennett's) - then leave.

2BiT said...

Really on-point discussion here! Good to see...

totally agree that when dining out you expect to get something that you couldn't (or wouldn't) cook at home. And a restaurant should be trying to show off their ability, regardless of the dish concerned (veggie or not). If I see another goats cheese tart I think I am going to scream!

I also consider the term 'vegetarian option' a bit of a fallacy, certainly if there's only 1 veggie dish on the menu. Not much of an 'option' there!

Given that most restaurants charge similar prices for veggie dishes as for those with meat/fish, yet the markup is significantly higher, you would think they'd make more of an effort for these 'high value' customers.
As for the comment that vegetarian food is more difficult to cook or not profitable I think that's pretty ridiculous (though that is just my _opinion_).

For a great example of what can be done with vegetarian fine dining check out http://www.terreaterre.co.uk/ in Brighton. Worth a trip for that alone! (Banns in Edinburgh is also great tho!).

Closer to home Me:Nu in Belfast (Donegall Road) also has a vegetarian menu alongside meat and seafood.

Jenny Muir said...

Hi 2 BiT - I'll try Me:Nu, sounds lke it might be a new option for after work dining. Also it's great to get ideas in other cities. There used to be a place in Brighton called Food for Friends, I don't suppose it's still there.