Hospitality Review - March 2010
Belfast’s Bastille is a far cry indeed from the dreaded Paris prison where Dickens’ unlikely hero, Sydney Carton languished and, finally, found redemption. Yet, as Emma Cowan discovered, the chic French brasserie on the Lisburn Road has its own ‘Tale of Two Cities’...
Now, he’s very French was the forewarning I was given by the PR company that initially pointed me in the direction of Bastille, the recent and most welcome French addition to the Belfast restaurant scene. I do speak French – rustily – but I really require generous alcoholic lubricant in order to be comfortable, so I was a little apprehensive.
I needn’t have worried for, as soon as I met Guilliaume Rabillat I realised that he was, in fact, an old acquaintance and French, yes, indeed, but French via Derry city! I first met Guillaume under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Association of Chefs and Cooks, for he is a pastry chef par excellence and I well remembered his utterly fascinating workshop on the art of the chocolatier. The French accent is strong, but it has a Derry lilt to it that makes for complete ease of understanding.
After eight years living and working in Derry, Guillaume has begun his own ‘tale of two cities’ (or should that be three?) moving to Belfast to open Bastille, a wonderful bastion of all things genuinely French on the Lisburn Road, downstairs from Fired Earth and across the street from Shu.
Walking into Bastille, there could be no doubt that this is a French eatery. The lower street location has provided the perfect opportunity to create a sheltered little pavement café at the entrance. On entering, the wine rack commands the eye and there is little – very little – there that is not French and fabulous. “You can’t have a French restaurant without French wine,” stated Guillaume and there are only four new world offerings on the wine list, which is compiled using Febvre and United Wine Merchants. “There is only one thing I am still searching for”, he confided, “and that is the perfectly flavoured, competitively priced Pinot Noir – a good French Pinot Noir is truly exceptional but it’s hard to find the right balance between taste and price.”
There has clearly been no difficulty at all matching flavour and price where the food menu is concerned. I have to admit that I have rarely, in recent years, looked at a menu that appeals so much – I just want to gorge on everything! Guillaume’s Bastille menu boasts all the wonderful French brasserie ‘classics’: Soupe à l’Oignon; Moule Marinières; Grenouilles Fries; Escargot; Boeuf Bourguignon and, of course, Crême Brulée and Crêpes Suzette. The prices on the menu are kind and the offers - two courses for £12 or three courses for £16 on the weekday menu du jour – are a steal, given what’s on offer.
In true French style, Guillaume takes a relaxed approach to his guests. “The restaurant seats 80 and it would be nice to get two covers from it in an evening, but I don’t push for that,” he explained.
“I operate the bookings system on a one cover basis and, if the opportunity arises to sell a second cover during the evening, then I will but, first and foremost, a French restaurant is about relaxing and I’m happy to let my guests do just that. When they book a table for the next week as they are leaving, which they do in surprising numbers, I feel I’ve got it right.”
Guillaume and his business partner, François De Dietaich, found their ideal Belfast location and transformed it into Bastille in a mere six weeks, ready for a pre-Christmas opening. Under any circumstances, this would be no mean feat but add to that the fact that almost everything front of house has been imported from France and the achievement becomes even more impressive. “I wanted to plant a little bit of France right here in Belfast,” explained Guillaume, who clearly enjoyed doing just that! The very typically French stone floor was conveniently purchased from Fired Earth directly above the restaurant on the Lisburn Road but virtually everything else – tables, chairs, occasional furniture, fittings, mirrors and the like – were bought on a whistle-stop tour of Paris, augmented by French sourcing on eBay! The end result is very pleasing – simple, elegant, comfortable and tasteful. There is even a real log fire set in a central chimney breast and the back patio allows for more continental streetstyle eating – when completed, it will even have its own herb garden scenting the evening air.
DANS LA CUISINE
In the kitchen, Guillaume had another set of priorities: energy efficiency and genuine French cooking! The energy efficiency he has achieved by spending a little over the odds on specific equipment at the outset which, he believes, will generate cost and energy savings that will make the investment worthwhile. As for French food, well, 60% of the staff at Bastille are French!
The Head Chef, Conor MacCann (ex Thyme) is an exception but one with whom Guillaume has an excellent rapport. “Conor thinks like me about food – he wants to take simple ingredients and create simple, great tasting food,” said Guillaume.
Like himself, Guillaum’s pastry chef is French and he is delighted to have persuaded Laurent Levy to return to Belfast from France to manage the front-of-house operation. Readers of a certain age (like me, for instance) may not immediately recognise the name, but Laurent was the floor manager of that old French favourite, Frogities.
Now, those were the days.... and I think that, with the arrival of Bastille in Belfast, those old days may well have returned – but better than ever!