Southsea’s Belle Isle restaurant and bar has stepped up a gear with its new opening in Chichester.
The 200 cover place is now second in its bid to reinvent the chain – a word which doesn’t sit easily with Belle Isle’s young owners who I understand don’t think they’re operating one, more a way of life.
But with discount cards, identikit menus and special deals early on in the week, what conclusion will visitors jump to? A chain in the making.
But this type of restaurant usually offers sub-standard food and service, bought-in inferior microwaved nosh more often than not the order of the day. How does Belle Isle differ?
The menu states ‘all food [is] cooked to order from fresh’ and reads rather more interestingly than the usual chain fare.
But first up, the décor. Just off West Street, one of the city’s main streets, the large premises sprawl across a huge area. At the entrance is a smart, very long bar, the other end boasting a stunningly colourful tiled floor under an odd wood canopy housing a suspended boat and seating. The kitchen is behind a wall of photos taken by locals.
The restaurant’s centre is a mishmash of varying types of seating – sofas, tables for four or more, communal high table seating. It looks like a furniture factory. Further areas lead to a grass-covered area for smokers and drinkers.
Everything except the kitchen sink has been added to the décor – kitchen utensils, olive oil bottles, kitchen cabinets – giving it a cluttered, overcrowded look. It won’t win awards for its looks – but what about the food and service?
Very reasonably priced dishes include tempura prawns, hummous, pitta and olives, shipwrecked mussels with lemongrass and lime with ciabatta, homemade soup and nachos are all under a fiver.
Mains are Alabama hotpot (pork belly, sweet potato), falafels, Asian beef salad, Belle Isle junk salad (chicken, beans, bacon, pepper) and catch of the day (a sea bass the day I visited) and others, most priced at £8 - £10, the steak £15. Fajitas, burritos, nachos and sharers (£25 for the hotpot, jerk chicken curry, paella or the mussels with wine, beer or sangria) are also served.
Mediterranean fish broth at 5p shy of £10 contained coley, king prawns, mussels, smoked haddock, salmon, potatoes, coriander, basil and chilli in its fragrant, moreish broth. This is not cooking by numbers but accomplished food, a far cry from your usual chain. The tender fish was ace, as were the potatoes although there were too many of them. More Thai than Med in taste thanks to the plentiful chillies and coriander. The generous bowlful came with toasted ciabatta, a thoughtful finger bowl for tackling the excellently cooked mussels and an extra bowl for the shells. A good glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc matched well. Bought in desserts – brownies with ice cream, New York cheesecake, biscuit ice cream with smarties, cookie dust (read crumbled biscuits) and chocolate sauce – didn’t appeal. But when the chefs start making their own, as promised, they will.
An espresso marks Belle Isle out as caring about the important peripherals.
And the service? Step up Valerie and Maria, both terrific, warm, professional staff who know their Belle Isle onions.
Belle Isle is, without a doubt, a different kind of chain thanks to its impressive food and service. The look, however, was a jumble of major proportions and its only downside.
Despite this, a contented, noisy buzz above the music was evident. This chain, ahem, is on to a winner. My bill came to just over £15.
Belle Isle, 31 – 32 Chapel Street, Chichester, PO19 1AB
01243 781085. thebelleisle.co.uk
Open: 8pm – midnight (Mon-Thurs), 8pm – 1 am (Fri-Sat) and 11am – 11 pm Sundays.
Food: Four (out of Five)
How to get there: take the A27 to Chichester and follow the signs to the cathedral in West Street. Chapel Street is off West Street on the left. Parking: on-street or nearby car park.