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November 10, 2012

The City of Food – Belfast

by Julianne Mooney

I rediscovered Belfast two years ago and became quite taken with their burgeoning food scene. Quirky restaurants, funky bars, food walking tours and cookery schools provide a playground for food lovers in search of some culinary delights. There are whispers that it is quickly rising to become one of Ireland’s culinary capitals, and to be honest, I wouldn’t contest this.

The passion and commitment to providing the best products, food and dining experience is palpable throughout the city, with the likes of Deanes, Cayenne and Mourne Seafood Restaurant setting the standard high, but keeping prices realistic. I like this, value for money. Great food, a warm ambience and a happy wallet. It’s possible to get a three course meal in one of the top eateries for £25, not a paltry amount, but it’s well worth it and you won’t feel like you’ve being fleeced. I went to a casual restaurant in Dublin the other day and paid €25 for a burger, chips and glass of wine. I felt a little hard done by.

My recent visit to the City of Food was during Belfast Restaurant Week when all the cities eateries presented affordable and imaginative menus, fun quizzes, live music and unique dining experiences for one full week.

First stop was a cookery course in Mourne Seafood Cookery School where I’d learn to cook a seafood risotto. I love to cook and have cooked many a risotto, but I must confess I’m nervous of cooking seafood. I think it stems from watching people decapitate prawns and tackle lobsters with frighteningly complex precision. I don’t like the squirty liquid that jets out as the head comes off, nor the act of pulling legs and heads off some helpless creature. Call me fussy.

The idea of a cookery course is that you learn something new and that was my aim. Our chef took his position at the top of the room, ingredients laid out and gas burning. He talked us through, with passion and knowledge, each of the ingredients we’d be using, most of which are sourced in Northern Ireland itself. Like any other expert, he made it look easy, langoustine’s heads slipped off easily, shells peeled without a fuss and soon he had a fish stock bubbling, risotto on the go and within 20 minutes we were tasting his creation. Delicious!

Then it was our turn to move to our stoves and little containers of ingredients, with his instructions lingering in our heads. I tend to cook free-style, using recipes as a guide, but when cooking seafood for the first time I thought a more diligent approach would be best. It helped that I had a trained chef, Rozanne Stevens, on the stove across from me who allowed me to teeter on my toes and watch her every move. I admit to being pathetic at the decapitation process and had to relinquish my little friends to her capable hands.

All 13 of us, skilled and unskilled cooks,cooked up our own seafood risotto, using the same ingredients, yet presenting significantly different looking dishes. However, as we sat down at the high tables where glasses of chilled wine awaited us, there were smiles all round. We’d come, cooked and created a dish that resembled in some way, the dish of a trained chef. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I should return for a full afternoon, with a group of my girls and learn how to cook up a real seafood feast.

My belly full, I took the opportunity to do a bit of retail therapy in the hopes I could walk off lunch before the next foodfest. Shopping bags in tow I trekked back to the Europa Hotel, conveniently located opposite The Crown Bar, and equipped with deep baths and soft beds, two hotel essentials.

Dinner was in Paul Rankin’s Cayenne Restaurant where for restaurant week, a few of their suppliers welcomed guests with platters of cheese and trays of wine. We were seated in the buzzing dining room and presented with the menu which offered 3 courses for £25. The food was not just average, it was delicious. My prawns served with chilli jam were exactly how I like them, the venison was served pink and tender and the panna cotta with fruit coulis was sublime.

You’d think I’d had enough to eat, but before jumping on the train back to Dublin we did turn to some of the treasures Barney introduces you to. Our final pitstop was at the Titanic Building, but I will confess to not doing the full tour, but the building itself is impressive and the cafe is fantastic! I guess I’ll just have to return so I can learn all about the ship Barney worked on!

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