The Circle at Deanes - Food Belfast

Posted: 3/4/2012

Value means different things to different people. One man’s fine dining is another man’s idea of a snack before dinner.

I blame nouvelle cuisine. Whilst it did its bit for the culinary world, it also helped to perpetuate the myth that fine dining meant small. Its literal translation means ‘new cuisine’ but in the eyes of many people it might well have translated to ‘postage stamp’. It’s one of the reasons why people fear some of our heavy-hitting restaurants like Deane’s.

They hear the name of such restaurants and they instantly think they’re pretentious, that its tiny portions wouldn’t keep a mouse happy and that it’s damn well pricey.

As I sat upstairs in Michael Deane’s flagship building on Howard Street, I couldn’t help but think how wrong those perceptions are. The Circle, as upstairs is now known, has deep red walls, a small number of tables spread out and music banging out. It’s as far removed from the old ‘upstairs’ as it’s possible to be, with one exception – the food is still stonkingly good.

We were greeted at the door and seated beside the bar where we were treated to a cocktail of champagne with St Germain elderflower liqueur with a touch of mint. It was a refreshingly good cocktail.

As we sipped our drinks the first of two amuses bouches came out – mackerel nori rolls with dots of wasabi and a dipping sauce. The mackerel was light and fresh and the wasabi gave it a great kick. It was followed up by a perfectly balanced chicken liver parfait with melba toast. Like the rest of the dishes on the night it showed the touch of a highly experienced chef with pin-point perfect seasoning that’s a rarity in these parts.

We moved around and sat at our table, which had a perfect view of the kitchen (though if you’re that way inclined you could sit at the pass and watch the chef up close and personal).

There’s no menu cards or decisions to be made at the Circle at Deane’s. Above the kitchen is a chalkboard with four hints as to what you’ll be eating along with a suggested wine pairing for each course. The meals upstairs are set in price at £39 per person and include an amuse bouche or two, breads, four courses, petits fours and cocktail on arrival. The addition of the wine pairings per person does increase the price somewhat, but you can always order from the wine menu.

Watching Michael Deane in action is a wondrous thing – he prowls the kitchen with an intensity that shows on the plate.  Our first course – pork belly with scallops – was a thing of beauty, for all the senses. The thin strip of pork was tender with a light crispy skin and lychee nested on top.

The balance of flavours was extraordinary – the pork belly had been smoked then deep-fried and coupled with the fragrant, almost perfumed fruit would have kept a mere mortal like me grinning from ear to ear. The addition, however, of perfectly cooked scallops on a spiced salad with slithers of green chilli made our table of four go quiet for the first time that evening.

We moved on to pigeon where Deane left nothing out – breast and leg were the main components but they were also accompanied by heart and liver. Tangy sous-vide strips of rhubarb sat underneath and the dish was completed by one of life’s pleasures – foie gras. A Forrest pinot noir accompanied the pigeon and was, for me, the standout wine on the evening. On the night, the front-of-house team of Alain Kerloc’h and Bronagh Smith married professionalism with friendliness perfectly and with a laid-back (in a very good way) attitude that epitomises everything the Circle at Deane’s stands for.

We moved on to a beef dish which was so packed full of flavour that there was finger-wiping at the end to make sure we didn’t send a plate back with even a sense that sauce had ever been on it. The perfectly cooked beef sat on a bed of peppery spinach alongside baby onions. On either side was a sticky sauce reduction and a smear of celeriac puree. The star of the show, however, was a small tomato that had been cooked for 12 hours and infused with thyme and garlic and filled with tender, flavoursome beef shin. Such dishes were made for plate licking as well as for the accompanying Campo di Sasso Insoglio Tuscan wine.

I had, in truth, been dreading the dessert from the moment we sat down. Apple and caramel were up there on the board and I can normally think of nothing worse in a dessert than apple. But what arrived on the plate was nothing short of stunning. Thin slices of apple were given the crème brûlée treatment so that the juicy apples had a crunchy topping. Dots of sweet puree intersected the apple and were accompanied by a light, magical crème caramel and an intensely flavoured apple sorbet.

The dish was accompanied by a small glass of cider, which had crème de cassis added, making it smell like a crumble and bringing a special touch to the dish. It did, however, make the dessert wine pairing defunct in my opinion – it really wasn’t needed with the addition of the cider.

We rounded off our meal with a slate of petits fours – a mint macaroon and two types of fudge and a wee dram of whiskey.

The Circle at Deane’s is laid back, phenomenal value and you won’t go home hungry. It’s fantastic to see the old master back prowling the kitchen. Will you find better cooking in Belfast this year? I doubt it very much. And at that price, to me, that’s not just value, it’s a steal.


The Circle at Deane’s (open Thursday to Saturday)
36-40 Howard Street
Tel: (028) 9033 1134

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