If Belfast were Paris, our Champs Elysees would be Royal Avenue, the 16th Arrondissement would be that nice bit between Malone and Lisburn roads and the Jardins de Luxembourg would be the Botanic Gardens.
To some, this kind of comparison is facile and ridiculous. It puts us into the wrong context and makes our goal to become a world-class tourist destination impossible to achieve. To the cynics, Belfast is a basket case that will never succeed in attracting mass tourism. For them it’s a case of ‘can’t compete, won’t compete’.
But to many of us, Belfast is just as much a contender for holiday destination of the century as, say, Rio de Janeiro, Manhattan or Shanghai. It’s just very different. And just because it’s much smaller does not erase the city’s features, which include a golf course barely a par 5 from City Hall. And people find it compelling.
Some can-do bravehearts take this belief in their city a step further and invest in businesses that, while appealing to tourist chiefs because they enhance the tourism offer, aren’t there specifically for visitors.
Take the Café Le Petit Ormeau on the city’s Boulevard Montparnasse, sorry, I mean Ormeau Road (up from that golf course I mentioned). Here is an excellent neighbourhood restaurant with all the urban chic of a modern European capital address, a blackboard menu of uncommon offerings, a rising reputation for its signature dishes and a team of friendly and professional servers who’ll make you want to go back again and again.
This area of Belfast is becoming remarkable for some of its quality bars and small restaurants, including the Errigle, the Pavillion, Soul Food and l’Etoile, attractive boutiques such as Willo and La Femme, a good wine merchant, and much more besides, all within a few yards of each other.
As a result the district is going all boho and cool. And the Petit Ormeau completes the picture very nicely.
The dishes now defining the Petit Ormeau include house salt beef sandwiches with pickles and all the kosher-style accoutrements. While the salt beef has made a name for itself, it’s the pulled pork in a crusty bap that has caused a sensation.
Three of us called in late at lunchtime on Saturday and the place was bunged. A table became free within 10 minutes or so, and soon the wonders started coming forth from the minute galley kitchen.
The croque monsieur was a modernist’s interpretation of this classic Parisian fast food. Inch-thick slices of buttery brioche toasted golden and crispy enveloped thick hocks of ham and cheese.
A little ramekin of fries and and some slaw added to the happy mood.
The advisor’s prawns in Marie Rose were as good, but mildly spoiled by having to sit on top of hot toast. Deane’s Deli does this too with its open prawn marie rose sandwich and it’s not a happy marriage. The prawns are cool and fresh in their pink sauce — what they don’t need is to be heated up from the toast. And then the toast suffers too as it loses all definition and structure from the wet prawns.
The ‘Grand Ormeau Pulled Pork’ (there’s a smaller version) comes with onion rings, coleslaw, Swiss cheese, green olives and a small hillock of fabulously barbecued tender pork, pulled apart and blessed with sweetness and saltiness. This has presence and makes a big impact.
Americans have been doing this kind of thing for years (as a student I worked in an independent hot sandwich bar in Paris that was owned by an American and this is what they were serving — they sold like hot madeleines to the French). The pulled pork sandwich features large in the slow food movement in New York state and you’ll find delicious variations of it in many small-town diners.
None I’ve ever tried has been as good as this, however. Being this good means it will add a compelling and powerful argument for those who want this part of the Ormeau Road to succeed by attracting shoppers and diners.
From what we could see of the other dishes — the oiled herring and salad, the house salt beef, chicken and vegetarian choices — you could tell they were well composed, generous and made from decent quality ingredients.
There are some minor drawbacks at Petit Ormeau. Payment for food is made at the till before you sit down. This means you need to order your coffees, desserts, etc before you really know what mood you’re in.
While you can do it in two goes (pay for what you want first and then pay a second time if you want something else) it would be a bit less cumbersome to deploy the conventional bill-at-the-end method. But the servers are so pleasant and helpful, my niggle is slight.
The Petit Ormeau is a welcome addition to the area and it deserves to succeed. Because if it does, the rest of this rising part of town is going to be on the pig’s back.
Croque monsieur £6
Prawn Marie Rose £6.25
Grand Ormeau Pulled Pork £8.50
Espresso x 2 £3.60
Ginger beer £2.50
Sparkling water £2
Diet Coke £1.50
274-276 Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 2GB.
Tel: 028 90649245