Belfast Telegraph - December 2009
When you go on your holidays abroad, no matter how short haul, you have an idea in your mind that you are travelling a million miles from home.
Malaga or Maldives, it doesn’t matter. Once you’re in international airspace, distance doesn’t matter. As soon as you step on that plane, that’s it, you’ve left the old country and the miseries and drudgery of daily life are instant history. For some really desperate headcases who loathe their normal existence, a foreign holiday is not just a chance to drop tools for a couple of weeks — it means a new identity can be assumed.
I’ve seen guys from north Belfast at the bar in Aldergrove transformed three hours later into hedge fund managers, brain surgeons and international soccer agents by the time they’ve ordered their second cerveza in the beach bar at Magaluf. There are good reasons for this change of identity. For one thing, it’s easy because you’re abroad and nobody knows you. For another, it helps your pulling power if you replace your profession as a chicken sexer at Moy Park with something a bit more glamorous like, say, Beyonce’s European tour head of security.
But in the last 20 years it has become very difficult to lose your identity and create a new one while on holidays because every foreign capital, every beach and port town and just around every corner of every newly developed resort is an Irish Bar. Chances are that you won’t resist the lure of the old country and then you’ll meet someone who knows you.
Few other nations face this phenomenon. For instance, you never expect to see ex-pat cowboys in KFC or visiting Venetian gondoliers in Pizzaexpress. The only exception is the French, who are as chauvinistic as the Irish.
When Froggities and La Belle Epoque disappeared, Belfast lost two French experiences. They were places where you could get decent French food in a bistro environment with a bit of crack and you felt they were as good as anything you might find outside the Gare du Nord. There used to be French people in them too — and they weren’t just working there. Now that the Bastille has opened on the Lisburn Road, however, and Thierry Henry notwithstanding, the French community in Ireland has a new place to eat and meet in, and this time, it’s authentique.
The new restaurant has embraced the Gallic stereotype wholeheartedly. But it’s more Amelie than ’Allo ’Allo. It is modern, well lit and cheerful. The tables and chairs are distinctly bistro-style, the wood burner in the middle of the room gives off the mildest of smokey aromas that any of you will recognise if you’ve eaten in country places on a French winter break. The pictures on the wall are predictably scenic and involve the Eiffel Tower. To top it all there is Parisian accordion music and Edith Piaf on a loop. As a semi-Frenchman with a French mum, I think it’s great.
The menu is packed with all the dishes you’d expect to see on the blackboard outside any self-respecting, workaday French town centre restaurant. Think of any French dish and it’s there: cassoulet, moules frites, frogs’ legs, cheese ... It’s soooo French, in fact, it’s a wonder the servers and chef, Conor McCann, are from here. And that’s something to be thankful for. Irish servers are far better because they aim to please. French servers aim to shoot and humiliate and usually hit the target. The cassoulet with duck and sausage starter was a generous pot of rich and meaty stew bursting with beans and deep flavours. This kicked things off well and the moules marinieres across the table were no less impressive. (Irish mussels are superior to French ones — they’re bigger and juicier.)
The mariniere liquor was perfectly balanced with garlic and parsley in the white wine and a little added cream. The portions were just right and erred on the side of generous.
Things started to take a slight dip with the mains. The menu du jour — two courses for £9.95 — had said saucisson with wine lentils. The dish actually consisted of three good quality local sausages and while the lentils were excellent, it was nonetheless a disappointment. I had never seen saucisson used in a warm dish and was keen to see how it worked. Unlike the Italians who will use salami in pizzas, the French are a bit precious about their saucissons and won’t, in general, heat them up.
The two rib-eye steaks at £16.50 had to be reduced to one, the other being replaced with onglet, a cut not unlike a filet but with more bite. The onglet was marked in the menu at £11.50 and it was only afterwards I noticed on the bill that it had been billed at £16.50 — an innocent mistake but a reminder to always check. The puree potatoes were fresh and tasty, but mashed and not pureed.
The desserts were the low point. Pain perdu, bread and butter pudding, was described as a brioche in vanilla custard, but what appeared was a dry bit of toast. I asked where the vanilla custard was and was told the chef said it was infused in the brioche. It wasn’t.
A crepe Suzette’s accompanying orange slices and Grand Marnier were neither flambéed or if they were, they were set alight out of eyeshot, which is pointless. The crepe itself was a rubbery thing — far too thick and cold.
The wine list kept spirits up with its lovely low-cost French labels including a wonderful Chateau Mas Vieux red from Languedoc for £25.
Overall, Bastille is good for its age — three weeks old at time of reviewing. But the chef needs to match his floor staff who are keen to please, eager to see you again and make the business work. If a client says a £4.50 bread and butter pudding isn’t what it should be, a more positive reaction from the kitchen will gain huge amounts of goodwill.
As it is, I’m going back with my own money because it is properly French. If being properly French means having to accept the chef-is-always-right rule, then it’s a price I’m almost happy to pay.