Belmont struck me as a bit of a brat when it first opened in 2014: I found it hard to like. It felt like a self-indulgent little place, the service was too cool for school and the kitchen was plating dishes that seemed more provocative than pleasurable.
But I like it so very much more now. Either it’s matured or I’ve become kinder.
So let’s just say it’s matured.
Whatever the cause, I feel more tucked in at today’s Belmont. The menu is short, eclectic in nature, dishes are roundly tasty, and portions are generous and feel priced right.
The room, like the menu, is concise, decorated with bits of this and bobs of that: team pendants, old school maps, sepia baseball memorabilia, a plastic Colonel Sanders beneath a (presumably precious) hammer framed with yardsticks. The rest is a blend of reclaimed wood and repurposed metal. Candles come out at dusk, the better to see the salvaged Café Henry Burger dinnerware.
If I had one beef left, it would be with the drinks list. Written on a large blackboard, it fancies up the wall and all that, but from many tables it can’t be seen, requiring the bother of standing up, walking over (or down the stairs if you’re perched next to the galley kitchen in the back) and examining it. Then heading back to the table to look at the food menu again, by which point you’ve forgotten the name of the wine you wanted, so you head back to re-examine the wall. It’s a pain. Could it not be written down on paper? Or spread the pretty info and add it to another wall? And yes, a small winge….
Chef Phil Denny is now in the Belmont kitchen. He’s best known to me from his days at Jak’s Kitchen on Bronson Street and, briefly, at the (late) Back Lane Café in Hintonburg. The Mediterranean/Middle Eastern flavours he was plating at Back Lane have found their way to Belmont plates. But so have Caribbean, Cantonese and East African flavours. His Ethiopian-style beef tartare, spiced with berbere and served with injera, may be the best thing I’ve tasted all year. I also loved his dim sum treats and what he calls “Doubles” — curried flatbread street food found in Trinidad and Tobago.
There was Bowie and Iggy Pop on the stereo on the Tuesday we discovered it was discount dim sum night. So we went to town on basket steamers. The kitchen’s shrimp-stuffed eggplant with a black bean sauce was light years better than most anything you’ll find on Somerset. It was served with Asian greens and roasted peanuts. The duck siu mai featured pulled-duck confit with crunchy bits of water chestnut, garlic, ginger and cilantro, served with a soy like vinegar. And there were pork dumplings with kimchi and chives. These were so good that we ordered another round.
The tuna tataki appears to have survived the transition to the spring menu, newly launched at a second visit. Denny’s take hits the cool rare slabs of fish with ponzu and a black olive mayo, crispy shallots, kimchi and bright hits of lime leaf. It’s a great plate. Also new for spring, the street food of Trinidad – two overlapping rounds of puffed-up curried dough (bara), yellowed with turmeric. These were fried and topped with channa (curried chickpeas), scallion, and cilantro, with mango chutney for sweet and cucumber for crunch and then topped with your choice of fish, beef or veggie. We went for the delicious braised beef. Scallion oil gave the Doubles further lubrication.
Eggplant with dukkah and mint yogurt, sweetened with pomegranate molasses, was roasted to smokey pleasure. Halibut was properly cooked, sided with puy lentils oven-roasted to crisp, and a slaw that featured turnip for a welcomed jolt of bitter. It was perked with a classic rémoulade that reached for things that go with fish: capers, pickles, lemon, dill, pickled onion. The Cornish hen was moist of flesh and crisp of skin and piled on with dried fruit and chopped almonds. The bird’s roasting juices were bolstered with the pungent flavours of chermoula, the Moroccan herb sauce, and sharpened with the intense tartness of preserved lemon.
The sweet ending was overruled in favour of another steamer of dumplings. It was Tuesday after all: discount dim sum, not discount dessert.