Northern delights

1 Dec 2004 by business traveller

Belfast's cuisine is thriving as a new generation of chefs experiment with local produce. Valerie James tucks in.

Belfast is getting busier. Last year saw a 25% increase in visitors and numbers are still growing. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Belfast is a city with something for everyone, with pubs, bars, shops and restaurants for the tourist; conference facilities and one of the world's top convention centres for those on business; and plenty of history for inquisitive travellers.
Once the site of the world's largest shipyards and the centre of the rope-making and linen trades, Belfast's city centre is scattered with handsome old linen halls, and there are plenty of images of the Titanic ? built and launched from Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard. Belfast Castle and Stormont are among the must-sees in the area, as are the vibrant political murals of the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas.
Such a thriving city is also attracting new investment. The huge Victoria Square development will include new shops, a cinema, cafes and offices, and Radisson SAS has just opened a hotel here, while Malmaison took over and refurbished the McCausland Hotel ? originally an old warehouse ? in preparation for its December launch. 
What I had come to explore in this modern Northern Irish city was its food and drink. The drink was easy; Guinness rules here as it does in Eire, and you can take a pub tour of Belfast on foot, starting from the Crown Liquor Salon in Great Victoria Street. This early-Victorian pub still has its original gas lighting flickering over the ornately tiled walls and bar, and the snug booths are the traditional place to enjoy some Guinness and Strangford Lough oysters.
The Victorian covered market down by the River Lagan boasts local ingredients including potatoes (the surrounding countryside provides almost all the potatoes for both southern and Northern Ireland), gleaming fresh fish and shellfish from the sea and loughs, as well as vegetables and fruits.
The image of Northern Irish food was epitomised by the ?Ulster Fry? ? the heart-attack-on-a-plate that fuelled the Ulsterman for a hard day's work. It can still be found here, but as an alternative there are now some talented chefs who have introduced new flavours to the area that make the most of regional produce.
One of these is Paul Rankin, who gained Northern Ireland's first Michelin star with his restaurant Roscoff in Shaftesbury Square. He later reopened it as Cayenne www.cayennerestaurant.co.uk), a coolly modern space with an eclectic menu including miso soup, wok-fried mussels, crispy pork belly char sui, and Strangford lobster with linguine. The cuisine is international, with punchy flavours, but the produce is as local as they can get. As Paul Rankin says: ?the seafood is without a doubt some of the best in the world, and lush pastures guarantee not only fantastic meats, but also incredible dairy products. The quantity, quality and variety of produce available has come on in leaps and bounds.?   
The Rankin Group is coming on in leaps and bounds too; as well as his Café Paul Rankin and diner-style Rain City outlets throughout Northern Ireland, Rankin is opening a new Roscoff Brasserie in Linenhall Street.
Another Belfast chef who uses old ingredients in new ways is Nick Price, of Nick's Warehouse (www.nickswarehouse.co.uk) in the Cathedral Quarter. His ever-changing menu includes hake with chilli and pickled ginger dressing, and chicken breast with Persian rice and five-spice sauce, along with some great Irish beef steaks.
If you're looking for traditional Northern Irish cooking, home-cooked-style, the answer is to make sure you stay in Belfast over a Saturday night, and then on Sunday morning head up to the University Quarter and visit Beatrice Kennedy. This is a restaurant in a converted terraced house where all the breads, desserts and ice creams are home made and the portions are generous. The wonderfully flavoured patés, huge slabs of fish, roasts to challenge the size of the plates, lamb shanks and casseroles offer Sunday lunch possibilities that will render the heartiest tourist or food writer speechless.
The Malmaison Belfast will be reviewed in the next issue ofBusiness Traveller.
For a low down on Belfast's other top hotels go to page 55 of the December/January 2004/2005 edition of Business Traveller magazine.
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