Friday, 30 December 2011

Restaurant review: Belgreen, Exeter

There can’t be too many professional kitchens in Devon with a silver mirror disco ball hanging from the kitchen ceiling. But then Belgreen is probably unlike any café you have ever visited.

A quirky little place that doubles up as a shop selling vintage household goods and printed linens, this new venture from chef Isabel Davies and designer Teresa Green opened a couple of months ago on Magdalen Road in the desirable St Leonard’s area of Exeter.

A street that still boasts a butchers, a delicatessen, cafes and restaurants, clothes shops, a pub and a launderette (cheekily called the Dandy Dipper), Magdalen Road is a fabulous reminder that the independents are still thriving and that there is still life beyond homogenised shopping centres.

This independent spirit is certainly evident at Belgreen, which manages to be thoroughly contemporary yet retro and deliciously old-fashioned at the same time.

From the moment you step inside and hear the tinkle of the antique bell above the door, there is a sense of timelessness about the café. You half expect Margaret Rutherford or Joyce Grenfell to be pouring a cup of tea in the corner.

There are just six closely-packed tables for customers, which certainly makes for an intimate experience and booking is highly advisable.

Tables and chairs are rickety, wooden and mismatched. There are retro mirrors on one wall, a vintage ivory wall phone on another. Crockery is antique and knives and forks are the sort of bone-handled Sheffield Steel cutlery found at car boot sales and antiques fairs.

In the window, enamel colanders and whisks hang on a washing line next to co-owner Teresa’s striking linen tea towels.

Chef Isabel worked in some notable kitchens prior to opening Belgreen. She started at riverstation in Bristol before moving to London to work at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Her first head chef’s position was at the celebrated London gastropub The Lansdowne and then at La Fromagerie in Marylebone.

More recently, she was sous chef at Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.

That’s quite a CV for a young woman barely into her third decade.

The menus change daily at Belgreen and they are chalked up on boards. Breakfast is served from 8.30am until 11.30am and might include home toasted granola or muesli with yogurt and raspberry compote; a bacon and tomato sandwich; Manx kippers, toast and butter or sauté tomatoes on toast.

And then comes lunch. With nothing more than £8.50 on the day we visited, the sub-£10 policy here is sensible, attractive and exactly right for such straitened times.

Portions are generous, too, and it would be quite possible to eat very well for around a fiver before you ordered drinks. There are half a dozen different wines available by the glass or bottle, as well as plenty of quality soft drinks and good coffee dispensed from a striking red Elektra coffee machine.

This is robust, seasonal cooking that uses as much local produce as possible and it is backed up with the best that Italy and France can offer.

My pappardelle, chicken livers, pancetta and sage (£8.50) was a generous plate of fresh pasta mixed with a tangle of precisely cooked chicken livers that were still rose pink in the middle. The pancetta added a salty crunch and the sage was used with restraint so as not to overpower the dish.

Across the table, roast pork, white beans and anchovy (£8.50) was the sort of comforting, rustic peasant dish you would expect to find in the Italian mountains, not leafy St Leonard’s. The strips of pork were surprisingly tender and the use of anchovy as a main flavour, rather than just a seasoning, was an inspired touch.

Dishes we didn’t order included watercress soup with pancetta and chilli flakes (£4.50); Provencal fish soup and rouille (£5.50); Welsh rabbit and watercress (£5); roast squash and blue cheese tart (£5.50) and Exmouth mussels with white wine, garlic and parsley (£8).

From the short dessert menu (scrawled in white chalk on a brown paper bag hanging from a wooden peg, naturally), a shared pear and almond tart (£3.50) was deep, moist and squidgy with a huge slice of tender pear in the centre.

A quirky place selling intelligently cooked seasonal food, as well as chipped enamel jugs and vintage blankets, Belgreen is certainly unique.

It may be a small café, but it has a large and generous heart. Like the silver mirror disco ball in the kitchen, this is one place where the talent really shines through.

Belgreen, 25 Magdalen Road, Exeter, EX2 4TA. Tel: 01392 271190.