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New in the North
A classy quintet of exciting destinations in Northern Ireland
If the entire island of Ireland were suddenly plunged into darkness because of a power outage, there is no need for anyone to panic. A simple, speedy solution is at hand.
To light the place up, you simply need to plug the electricity grid into the energy emanating from Belfast’s Ferine restaurant, on any Saturday night.
As a power source, Ferine is fusion personified. The place pulses, hums, vibes, rocks. The room, tucked away in a laneway adjacent to Belfast’s City Hall, is tiny, yet it packs the most powerful punch.
Ferine is the latest venture from the group behind Yugo and the – now shuttered – Lottie. Nathan Bird heads the kitchen team and the concept is a simple one: modern European food, described on a single page menu, with dishes that arrive when they are ready, and wines, overseen by Jason Cole, that are terrific fun.
On paper, that all seems straightforward. But Ferine is a wild card, rather like its name. It’s got the clamour of a San Sebastian tapas bar and the culinary insouciance that has become the calling-card of the best Northern Irish restaurants, mainlining the feral iconoclasm that drives destinations like Frae, Lir and Muddler’s Club.
The dishes sound like the sort of thing everyone is serving – dry-aged steak tartare; lamb sweetbreads with chicken sauce; scallop ceviche; fried chicken piri piri; creme catalan – but the kitchen’s secret sauce is the ability to imbue the food with the same energy that drives the room.
These dishes taste urgent. Ferine trailblazes a path with plates of Welsh rarebit croquettes that are shatteringly crisp; shrouding the beef tartare in a mantilla of Parmesan and bolstering it with beef dripping toast; or serving a pudding of deep-fried Ballylisk with truffle honey that your doctor might hesitate to recommend. Ferine food opens the dopamine receptors, then piles goodies into the brain’s reward system. Resistance is not just futile, it’s foolish.
Being in this room is like successfully riding a big wave, a mix of adrenaline and euphoria. But what keeps everything ship-shape is the kitchen’s ability to swerve from the punchy, bougie dishes like the croquettes and the fried chicken, and then to drop in a calm, quiet plate, like the superb tomato salad with tomato consomme and goat’s cheese custard, or the scallop ceviche with elderflower and apple caviar.
This confident sense of control extends to every element, so service is fleet and professional, with everyone on top of their game, and Ferine is as streamlined as an Airstream.
Would you pay £8 for a cup of coffee?
What about an eight quid cup that promised “Strawberry lollipop; Bubblegum; and Dulche de Leche”?
We did. We were in 28 Gilnahirk, and the £8 cup of coffee was an Edwin Norena, Caturra, Carbonic Maceration, from DAK in Amsterdam.
It was one of four Handbrew offers on 28’s coffee menu, alongside a couple of espresso offerings from DAK and Sumo Roasters of Dublin.
They take things seriously in 28. The coffee was served in a lidded bowl, resting on a saucer. As coffee goes, it was as close to a tea ceremony as you can get. It didn’t assail us with the sweet notes, as promised, but it was expressive, vegetal, enlivening and pretty darn perfect. If you are going to pay £8 for a cup of coffee, then you want it to be made and served with as much care as they do in 28.
28 is a strange one. For starters, it’s situated in a wee shopping enclave in Gilnahirk, a fairly anonymous suburb of eastern Belfast, and the place itself is deceptively anonymous, with the signage simply reading 28 and Café. It’s so easy to drive past it that we drove past it.
Inside is a different matter. The room is bright, white, modish and stylish, freshly beamed in from Oslo or L.A. 28 opened a year ago, and has attracted a steady undercurrent of good gossip: the people who know the good thing come here, they make the detour.
The brunch menu has conventional items – granola, croque Madame, breakfast hash. But it also has a chicken schnitzel; the SEC, which is a pork and sausage patty with salsa verde; and okonomiyaki, the Japanese cabbage pancake, which is served with kewpie mayo, chilli rayu, bonito flakes, and a fried egg.
As our DAK coffee was something like a Japanese tea ceremony, it had to be the okonomiyaki, and the okonomiyaki was a glorious hot mess of a dish. Lathered with katsuobushi, rayu, picassos of kewpie mayo, black sesame seeds, pickled red onion and spring onion, it was as carefully constructed and executed as our £8 coffee, and together the pancake and the brew were a pure thrill.
28 is a kitchen that likes to enjoy itself. They make a katsu sando with panko breaded chicken, schlep some nduja into their beans, and there is a flat iron steak sarnie with gochujang onions.
Our kids visited 28 in a little convoy by themselves, and described the SEC pork patty as: “Savage. Really savage.” They loved that the okonmiyaki was “highly playful Japanese cooking: the crunchy cabbage gives a spine to the flavour” whilst the schnitzel “was a really cleverly thought out balance of flavour between the lemony-acidic schnitzel compared with the very alkaline egg and bread sauce.”
The McKenna kids reckoned 28 served “some of the most interesting food we’ve had this year” and they loved the fact that it’s part of a growing Belfast phenomenon that locates cutting-edge destinations in unexpected parts of the city.
They will be back. And so will we.
The anxiety really gets to you, we can’t deny it.
It’s Saturday morning at the Round House Bakery in pretty Hillsborough, south of Belfast, just off the A1. We had joined the queue snaking down the street, and now we were actually in the shop, with two other customers ahead of us. Behind the counter, Hannah and Shane and their barista were toiling away, slinging out their peerless, sweet-smelling bakes and confectioneries.
Thing is, there are only two croissants left on the counter. And there are two people ahead of us.
This does not look good for our sourdough croissant needs.
The first punter orders and settles up, and heads off. He doesn’t order the croissants.
Just two of us now. 2 customers. And 2 croissants.
The anxiety. Walk a mile in our shoes. Are we hyper-ventilating? Our heartbeat has certainly shot up. We have driven down from Belfast and there is one customer ahead of us and there are only two sourdough croissants left in the Round House Bakery.
It’s more than mortal man can bear. This is why they invented prayer, right? It’s so hot in here. Is everyone sweating?
Then it’s our turn, and the two croissants are still there!
Proof of the existence of a God, at last.
We order the croissants, buy half of the shop as well, tap our card and exit the Round House Bakery, grinning like sandboys. It is 9.15 am on a Saturday morning, and we have won at life already.
Shane and Hannah’s Round House Bakery used to be a little baking business called Spontaneous Deuce, and they used to sell their extraordinary breads at the little market in Saintfield, where they attracted huge queues.
Today, they operate from a beautiful, round heritage building in Hillsborough and whilst they initially opened only on Friday and Saturday, they now also sell on Thursday which “gives the locals a chance to get some bread,” Hannah explained.
Shane and Hannah Donaldson are art students turned bakers who met at uni and then toured around and worked with artisan bakers in France, Italy, the UK and Denmark. They began with a domestic oven and a little delivery service, before graduating to the Saintfield Market, and thence on to Hillsborough, where they got the doors open in December 2002.
Their ambitions are stratospheric. They make a 3kg sourdough wholemeal miche. At Christmas, they made their own naturally leavened panettone, one of the pinnacles of the baker’s art. They make a potato dauphinoise Danish with Kilmorna cheese from Marion Roeleveld.
If the ambitions are stratospheric, they are matched by the execution, which explains the long queues, and explains the anxiety when there are only 2 croissants left.
And here's a Hillsborough lifestyle tip, which works to bring your blood pressure down.
Bring your croissant, and your perfectly delivered Root & Branch coffee, across the street to the seat at the bus stop. Savour the elasticity and buttery depth of the croissant. Marvel at just how good Root & Branch are at roasting coffee beans. Watch the Round House Bakery queue ebb and flow.
Anxiety? What anxiety?
It’s not everyday that you find a Pie Queen and a Pi Guy rubbing shoulders.
But if you head to Trademarket, on Belfast’s Dublin Road, then the excellent pies from Shonee McWilliams of Pie Queen, and Marty Duggan’s cracking organic sourdough pizzas from Pi Guy, are just some of the funky options at this novel food and retail court.
There are serious talents amongst the vendors at Trademarket. Look at Fin, for instance, where Jane Peaker offers mighty riffs on fish and chips, and where Ms Peaker sources her ingredients with meticulous precision: that grated Parmesan on the smoked coley arancini is aged for 36 months and comes from the legendary Mike’s Fancy Cheese. And who doesn’t want crab mac ‘n’ cheese made with Gruyere and fresh crab meat, or a haddock burger with green tomato chutney?
We were seriously happy with our Kubo Philippino BBq pork with banana ketchup and a fine spicy vinegar, a dish both elegant and authentic. This considered culinary artistry is on display right across Trademarket, from the Katsu Kitchen to the Moon Gelato, and there are cocktails and pints of beer and plenty of colourful tables and good cover from the summer of ‘23. To make it easier to make up your mind, they have a helpful spinning wheel which you can rotate if deciding which stall to choose gets too stressful, but Trademarket is a hip, stress-free zone, with fine eating.
Push back the doors, pull back the curtains, step into Belfast’s Rattlebag cocktail bar, and one name springs immediately to mind: David Lynch.
It’s a tribute to the iconic power of the great film maker’s visual vocabulary that just one sight of those deep-hued, louche reds, one glimpse of the velvet-studded bar, one glance at the Copacabana red lamps on the tables, and you are swept up into Lynch land. Where is Isabella Rossellini?
Matt Knight and Chris Wareing have created something other-worldly here in the Bullitt Hotel. Rattlebag is hushed and intimate and, when you step out to go to the bathroom and are immediately assaulted by the ccaophonous soundtrack of the hotel itself, you realise just what a precious, private little nest this is.
Rattlebag works because its strangeness is expertly curated. The setting, the soundtrack, the service and the drinks all operate on the frequency of weird and wonderful, as if the doors open a portal to Lynchian surrealism. It’s a shock when you step back outside and realise that you are on Ann Street, facing one of the biggest PSNI barracks in the country.
The drinks divide up between Classics and Seasonal Specials, with house martinis and signature serves, and they are crafted with attentive care. Barbie fans will want to order The Godfather – Glendalough pot still, Empirical “the plum i suppose”, Angostura bitters, Islay mist – and the excellent cocktail code gives plenty of clues as to what to expect in the glass. Rattlebag is the Red Room you want to be in.
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