Eating Out: No tinfoil hats at almost exclusively excellent Cyprus Avenue
NOT the best time to be associated with Van Morrison, is it? Not long ago even suggesting you weren’t a Van The Man fan felt like a mortal sin in this part of the world, like admitting you could live without soda bread on a fry.
But then he said restricting concert crowds in the middle of a deadly pandemic was based on “pseudoscience”, and now he’s recorded some songs bemoaning the “fascist” measures designed to “enslave”.
What’s the fuss? Anyone with even a passing knowledge of history will know the hallmarks of both fascism and slavery have always been being denied the opportunity to shell out £150 for a fillet steak and whiskey sauce in a hotel ballroom before hearing some jazzy, bluesy numbers from a fella in a hat that appears to be made out of tinfoil.
Thankfully Cyprus Avenue takes no more inspiration from Morrison than sharing the name of the song that mentions the nearby street in east Belfast.
Their Covid precautions – visors, screens, hand sanitiser, plenty of outdoor seating – are the sort of things that will help restaurants stay open while keeping customers safe and comfortable. Imagine that.
It’s a neighbourhood bistro in a neighbourhood, Ballyhackamore, that’s become ground zero for this sort of place in Belfast.
Even amid all that, Cyprus Avenue stood out from the start in 2017, before expanding into next door just under two years later.
Large windows stare wide-eyed out onto the Newtownards Road while, inside, leather banquettes sit round a handsome central bar. It’s equal parts exposed brick and smart teal wood panels. It’s modern, grown-up, and almost exclusively excellent.
The one dish that’s trying the hardest is the one that’s least successful. Everything – duck breast, duck sausage, plum ketchup – is individually worth eating but together it doesn’t trouble the sum of its parts. The sausage is tasty and perfumed with five spice, but the breast could have lived with being a few shades pinker. It’s all perfectly respectable, just a bit polite compared to everything else.
The soup, part miso broth with mushrooms, part classic French onion, is an umami bomb. It comes with wheaten and enough butter to make it look like an errant slice of birthday cake. On its own the bitterness of the hop butter would be far too much. The deep sweetness the onions bring to the soup turn that wedge of wheaten under a mound of butter into a delicate tightrope walker, who pulls it off.
The barley risotto is another bruiser of a starter – in flavour and size – but its concussive shots also come with nimble footwork.
A deep crab funkiness powers through from the stock into the grains; the garlic and lime butter gives that risotto unctuousness while calming down the fish.
There’s a lot of the crispy Cajun fried squid too – they also give you rustly, probably unnecessary, skin-on rosemary chips – and the hot knobbly curls need the salad, full of pickled chunks of cucumber and little cauliflower florets, to keep everything right. There’s more crunch from fried chickpeas and tortilla chips for scooping the avocado. If you were that way inclined, it would be perfect to share. If.
The madeleines are light and sweet, and made to be dragged through the butterscotch that packs a surprising bitter edge, which it needs with salted caramel ice cream and the madeleines themselves.
By comparison, a strawberry and white chocolate panna cotta with granola feels almost virtuous, actually almost like breakfast. That’s somewhere else Cyprus Avenue has made its reputation – particularly with their take on a fry – though also with the twist of eclectic innovation that runs though the entire menu. I don’t like the thought of getting too much further through life without trying a chicory croissant.
Although that fry – a ‘cooked breakfast’ to assuage your guilt – looks like something not to miss too. Just one thing. See the soda bread...
Crab risotto £8
Miso soup £5
Duck breast £17
Panna cotta £6
Frozen Long Island iced tea £9
Calypso coffee £6
Flat white £2.5
228-230 Upper Newtownards Road
028 9065 6755