Part One: Beef, Beer and Bars
It’s not all about Champ and Guinness in Belfast and Northern Ireland, although we did enjoy a glass of the brown stuff and a plate of this comforting dish when I was there a couple of weeks ago. Although Belfast (and Northern Ireland) may not be the most obvious “Culinary Hot Spots” for foodie travellers, they really should be; Belfast and its troubled past is a fascinating city with stunning architecture, cobbled back streets, cosy pubs, and is rich in maritime history. And, it IS one of THE up and coming places for artisan produce, food and drink. Gone are the days of conflict, and in wake of those dark days shines a beacon of hope and rejuvenation……Belfast is now a confident and vibrant city with some of the finest eateries and pubs in Europe. Confident and vibrant is may be, with an air of pride and passion, but it still retains a homespun almost quirky charm.
On my recent trip to Belfast and Northern Ireland, myself and my intrepid “foodie travellers”, Niamh, Leyla, Hugh, Lucy, Giulia and our lovely host Sarah, enjoyed a weekend filled with fine local produce, food, drink as well as travelling the Causeway Coastal Route to the Giant’s Causeway and visiting the filming locations of the hugely popular series, Game of Thrones, which is filmed in Northern Ireland. We were all guests of Discover Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland, and I think I can speak for the rest of the group when I say that we all had an absolute blast! (That’s a technical term that food and travel writers often use when they have experienced a great trip somewhere!) We were treated to Pub and Bar Trips, Food Trips, the MOST amazing meals at top end restaurants which all culminated in a relaxing stay on a top Spa Hotel.
The weekend was pretty wild in many senses, and we were chased all the way up to Ballymena by Storm Clodagh, where some in our party had difficulty standing up, and no, that wasn’t just the drink! It all started with Caroline and Phil taking us on a nocturnal Pub and Bar tour of Belfast; The Spaniard Bar was our first port of call – a three-story bar in The Cathedral Quarter, it’s like walking in to someone’s religious living room, with floral wallpaper, quirky posters and sacred art adorning the walls, it was warm and inviting with a great atmosphere, specialising in rum, our first drink of the evening was a “Dark and Stormy” rum cocktail.
The Pub Crawl continued with our next stop being at The Dirty Onion, an outside venue with regular music, where we all downed a delicious Dunville Whiskey, before moving on to vibrant and colourful The Duke of York Bar for a glass of Hilden Belfast Blonde. Nestled along a narrow cobbled alleyway in the historic Half Bap area, the Duke offers a traditional Belfast welcome with a fabulous atmosphere in an unpretentious bar and pub. It has some pretty amazing murals there too………
……in fact Belfast boasts many fascinating murals around the city in the form of modern street art, which we visited next day on our Belfast Food Tour…….
…….but on to the next watering hole – the Apoc for a Shortcross gin; I was lucky enough to visit the Shortcross Gin Distillery last year when I was in Belfast, with The Guild of Food Writers, and it was wonderful to be able to taste this clean, floral and aromatic gin again. The Apoc is up several flights of stairs and the bar had a cosy “at home” feel about it. We then walked on to The Hudson for more beer and ended up in the Sunflower Pub for a MacIvors Cider. Sunflower is a simple corner pub, with no airs or graces – it was packed the night we were there, where there were two or three young men playing traditional Irish ballads and songs downstairs, which added to the ambience and atmosphere of this neighbourhood pub. “The Craic” was certainly very good there and we were all reluctant to leave, but dinner beckoned and we all needed to eat after a night of liquid refreshments!
Dee from Tours Of Ireland escorted us to our dinner venue, which was at the OX on Oxford Street; this much heralded restaurant occupies the ground floor of a Victorian building with a mezzanine for extra diners on the second floor. Simply furnished with no frills, it was soon apparent that this was a temple to good, seasonal and locally sourced food, served elegantly with style and panache but with no pretensions. We were offered the OX Autumn Tasting Menu with paired wines (£45 per person for the tasting menu and £75 per person including wine). We dined upstairs on the mezzanine level and were surprised and delighted to see that our fellow diners were the cast of the Game of Thrones! I also spied actor James Nesbitt dining downstairs, and he graciously came upstairs to chat and have his photo taken with us later on.
The menu was innovative and creative and started with amuse bouche of Finnebrogue venison served with fermented turnip and beetroot paired with a wonderful white Rioja. The remaining courses didn’t disappoint either and the second course of hay-baked celeriac with lardo, black trompettes and truffles was a triumph of locally foraged mushrooms with imaginatively paired ingredients. Perfectly cooked tender halibut with mussels, salsify with sea lettuce followed and the paired wine was a Cotes du Rhone which matched beautifully. The main, or fourth course, was Chateaubriand with foie gras, butternut squash and lovage, my favourite herb. The meat was succulent and tender and the matched wine of Gulfi, Nero d’Avola was rich with a distinct taste of blackcurrant. Dessert was Jerusalem artichoke with banana, caramel and pistachio, which was wasn’t my favourite course, but then I don’t have a sweet tooth. Cheese and wine was taken next door in their annexe called OX Cave and was the perfect ending to a spectacular meal.
After a comfortable night at the Malmaison hotel and a very substantial breakfast in the restaurant there, we met Caroline from Belfast Food Tours (who had co-hosted the Pub and Bar Tour last night), for one of her excellent Food Tours; we met at St George’s Market and enjoyed over an hour of tasting and drinking our way around the market, as well as being introduced to the local artisans and market traders. We started off with tea, apple juice and coffee with an oyster along the way and ended up with a traditional Irish brunch. The market itinerary comprised: Suki Tea, SD Bell’s Coffee, Barnhill Apple Juice, Something Fishy for Oysters, Hillstown Farm, Ann’s Pantry and Belly Busters for brunch.
BELFAST FOOD TOUR
Our tasty market tour ended and we were back on a pub and bar crawl again! The first stop was The Garrick Bar, for some authentic Champ and a glass of McGraths Irish Black Stout. This was what I always think of as a traditional Irish pub, warm with lots of wood and little round tables with settle style benches, it was a welcome stop with the rain lashing down outside.
Next on the tour, was the fabulous Co Couture, a boutique chocolate company run by the lovely Deirdre, whom I also met last year when I was in Belfast. There we had a very entertaining talk and chocolate tasting session ending with a rich, gooey brownie and a cup of hot chocolate, which was utter bliss on such a cold day.
There are numerous breweries in Belfast, and our next stop offered us a chance to taste two more – The John Hewitt is unique in its ownership as it is owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. The Resource Centre’s managers had always relied on various grants to fund its work, when in the mid nineties, they came up with the idea of generating some of their own funds by going into business… And why not a pub! John Hewitt, the late poet, socialist and Freeman of Belfast officially opened the Resource Centre on Mayday 1983, hence the name of the bar; and it’s here that we tasted Cloughmore Heather Irish Pale Ale and Hilden Twisted Hop.
We were all ready for a hot drink again and stopped at Established, a hip and uber cool coffee specialist shop in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast; we had a talk by barista extraordinaire, Mark Ashbridge, and then had a chance to sample their excellent coffee. As well as the top-notch coffee, they also offer a fabulous brunch menu, and have been featured in the TV series “The Fall” too!
And finally, as if we needed any more food, we arrived at Coppi Restaurant for a special tasting menu lunch. Caroline had organised a veritable feast for us, with local artisan’s specialities such as local scallops, Peter Hannan Beef, roast hake, pizza, Parmesan fries, Abernethy butter, Passion Preserved pickles and Young Buck cheese. A glass of Sant Orsola Prosecco welcomed us and the whole meal was beautifully prepared.
We bade a sad farewell to Clare from Tourism Northern Ireland and Caroline who was a fabulous guide, knowledgeable and full of passion for all things edible and local. With an afternoon of free time, it was the delectable Dee from Tours of Ireland who organised a fascinating and poignant visit to Titanic Belfast; Titanic Belfast is a visitor attraction and a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city’s Titanic Quarter where the RMS Titanic was built. It tells the stories of the ill-fated Titanic, which hit an iceberg and sank during her maiden voyage in 1912, and her sister ships RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic. It was an interesting afternoon and the exhibition was tastefully arranged with live recordings of Titanic survivors telling their stories, which was heart-warming given how many people lost their lives. The city’s maritime and social history was also covered, with interactive displays.
Outside the storm raged on and I was grateful for a taxi back to the hotel, before sinking into a hot bath in the hotel. Before dinner, Dee walked us to the magnificent Merchant Hotel – here in the opulence of one of the bars, we all enjoyed the hotel’s signature cocktail, The Nine Hour Bill – The inspiration for the drink, 9 Hour Bill comes from the classic cocktail, Maidens Prayer, dating back to 1907 which consists of gin, orange curacao, orange and lemon juice. The name takes its inspiration from William Sherman -Crawford, a prominent landowner in Co Down and a radical reformist of his day, he stood as a representative in parliament and held the position of Sheriff of Down. He fought for the 9 Hour Bill, Irish tenants rights and many other important social issues for Irish people and workers as a whole. There is a stone obelisk standing on the Rademon Estate, where Shortcross gin is made, erected in his memory by the people of Down. (SEASON MAGAZINE).
Dinner followed at James Street Bar + Grill, with a meat feast of huge proportions! The chef had created a stunning menu in homage to Peter Hannan. We started with Peter Hannan Sugar Pit Pork Ribs with apple and celeriac.……..a crispy skin covering succulent sweet meat, it was simply stunning.
The large starter was followed by Peter Hannan’s Chateaubriand, Sugar Pit Beef Ribs and Braised Ox cheek with some very cheeky Chilli Cheese Fries. The meat was cooked to perfection and was succulent, sweet, tender and meltingly soft…….it was a carnivore’s dream and although I wanted to do justice to all of it, I ended up nibbling on bits and pieces, so full was I from the first course!
We ended the meal with a very refreshing and welcome Baked Alaska……..
……….it was hard to believe we had only been in Belfast and Northern Ireland for just over 24 hours! After one more night in the Malmaison we would be setting off for the Giant’s Causeway tomorrow, via several filming locations for the Game of Thrones (including The King’s Road, Winterfell, The Wall and Dragonstone) stopping at Harry’s Shack for lunch, before checking into the stunning and very luxurious GALGORM RESORT & SPA for our last night. So, PLEASE pop back soon to see Part Two, “The Causeway Coastal Route with the Game of Thrones” which is part of my Belfast and Northern Ireland: Artisan Food and Drink Tour posts. Karen
Disclaimer and Thanks:
I was the guest of TOURISM IRELAND and DISCOVER NORTHERN IRELAND, as well as various hotels, and restaurants that I will mention in my individual posts: my return flight, transfers, accommodation and meals were included, as well as all trips and excursions. With profound thanks to all the people and organisations that looked after me and made my trip so memorable and exciting.
This trip could not have been possible without the following people and organisations, as well as others already listed above:
Caroline and Phil from Belfast Food and Bar Tours
Dee from Travels around Ireland
Clare from Discover Northern Ireland
Standard Double rooms start from £85 per room per night based on two people sharing
BELFAST PUB AND BAR TOUR
£35 per person
BELFAST FOOD TOUR
£40 per person
Operates every Saturday and some Fridays and Sundays
8 Destinations over 4.5 hours long
Private and group tours are available on request for 12 or more
£17.00 per adult / £7.25 per child / £42 per family
£9.00 per adult / £4.50 per child / £22 per family
GALGORM RESORT & SPA
Superior Rooms start from £95 per room per night based on two people sharing
Harry’s Shack – https://www.facebook.com/HarrysShack
James Street Bar + Grill – http://www.belfastbargrill.co.uk/
Barking Dog – http://www.barkingdogbelfast.com/
Merchant Hotel – https://www.themerchanthotel.com/
River Room – http://www.galgorm.com/river-room.html