Eating Out: Stove Belfast - a new star lights up the restaurant scene
455 Ormeau Road
028 9064 7744
YOU either have to be very confident or incredibly reckless to launch a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic.
And yet, when most in the industry were wondering if they would survive until the end of the week, that is exactly what a pair of Simons did.
Stove Bistro opened on Belfast's Ormeau Road on September 30 - mere days after Health Minister Robin Swann was warning further interventions were likely to prevent an exponential rise in infections.
It is against this backdrop that it has just marked its first anniversary.
To be fair Simon Toye and Simon McCance had more reason than most to be confident.
The former was executive chef at Deanes - a restaurant which has been setting the benchmark for excellence in Belfast for longer than anyone can remember - and the latter owns multi-award winning Ginger Bistro, frequented by more than one Hollywood (yes, that's Hollywood with two 'l's) star in its time.
However, not even a pedigree that Frankel would envy was proof against the closure forced on the industry less than four weeks later.
Perhaps that is the reason Stove has crept rather than blazed onto the consciousness of the 'out out' crowd, reopening with sittings Wednesday to Saturday each week and a steadily growing reputation for excellence.
Another reason could also be its discreet location. On a wet midweek autumn evening we drove and walked past it three times before spotting a small sandwich-board directing us to the first floor of a building advertising a talent agency on the front door.
A flight-and-a-half up a utilitarian 'office' stairwell is the entrance to what appears to be an upmarket art gallery.
It turns out the display of ceramics is not some twee affectation but the work of artist Rory Shearer, who has designed Stove's beautiful bespoke tableware.
The unfussy clean-wood restaurant has the air of a traditional bistro, reminiscent of a sleeker, more well-heeled version of erstwhile near neighbour L'Etoile du Nord which closed its doors for the final time this week.
The menu is as tantalising and assured as you would expect, with pork belly bites and chilli oil sitting side-by-side in 'snacks' alongside rock oyster, pickled cucumber and dill.
I selected twice-baked cheese soufflé with creamed leeks and watercress from the starter menu, while my companion chose salt chilli prawns with a chilli Asian 'slaw from the specials board.
Thinking guiltily of the cholesterol test scheduled for four days hence, I tucked into the luscious rich spongey cheese and sauce with delightful liquorice undernotes. It goes to show you can't re-heat a soufflé but you can bake it twice - to stunning effect.
It was my turn to select from the specials - a medium-rare flat iron steak with a dark mushroom sauce and chips, paired with a glass of Borsao Grenache on the recommendation of the knowledgeable waitress, which was as fine as from any Parisian bistro.
My companion's delicate digestive system dictated her choice of roast chicken breast which arrived at the table with a photoshoot-perfect crisp brown skin, tender white meat, silky sautéed mushroom and mustard jus accompanied by a fluffy mound of colcannon on the side in a small cast-iron skillet.
By the time dessert came I knew I was in accomplished enough hands to order the buttermilk panna cotta.
I have been slow to come round to the cooked cream dessert following my early experience of gelatinous supermarket versions with the consistency of a malfunctioning silicone implant.
Done well, it is a thing of wonder and the ramekin pudding studded with jewels of rum-caramelised pineapple and punctured by delicate ginger cookies was a perfect end to a fabulous meal.
Not even the very real fear a stunning little Japanese-style ceramic teapot would at any minute find its way into my companion's capacious bag could distract from the final lingering mouthfuls.
I eyed an espresso martini being delivered to a neighbouring table regretfully, but it was a school night and my friend's smartwatch was already telling her off for not yet being tucked up in bed.
The rain had stopped when we stepped back out onto street, replete and reflective.
It has been one hell of a year, but even as one Ormeau Road star has gone out another is lighting up Northern Ireland's restaurant scene.
Salt and chilli prawns £9
Cheese soufflé £9
Roast chicken £17
Flat iron steak £23
Panna cotta £8
Drinks (including tea) £11