A few years ago, the then Stormont economy minister Reg Empey paid a visit to the Cultúrlann arts centre on the Falls Road in west Belfast as a guest of Gerry Adams.
He said a few words and apologised for not speaking Irish, to which Gerry replied with that charming smile of his: “Don’t worry — you will.”
The fact that the Irish language became so politicised in the last 40 years has acted as a deterrent to many who might want to engage with it. There are many fine places like Cultúrlann, the Linenhall Library and various colleges in which you can learn Irish in evening classes, but you can guess which section of the population tends to feel more comfortable with it.
Cultúrlann today is much more of a broad church. While Irish may be the language of choice, they’re not daft about it and nobody feels excluded when walking into the public spaces on the ground floor where you will find the very good Caife Feirste restaurant beside the bookshop.
If you book a table by phone you’ll be greeted with a cheery greeting in Irish: Dia dhuit! If this is the case, you should act smart and reply: Dia is Muire dhuit! But if you're like me and not great at Irish, rest assured, because when you actually walk into the place no-one will be testing your proficiency in the tongue.
In fact, you’re far more likely to be confronted with charm, warmth and youthful hospitality as was the case when the advisor and I took the family for a light lunch on a recent Sunday.
The room itself is designed in typical post-depression, urban-regeneration-community-centre-chic. The tables are big and accommodating, the chairs functional and comfortable and there is a great sense of space and airiness about it. This allows for a certain elegance of movement and a feeling of relaxed informality — just what you’d hope to achieve if you were designing a community-based centre to attract outsiders.
But if the idea of a community centre ignites all sorts of emotions and stereotypes — they run on shoestring budgets and often their cafes are terrible — then the time has come to smash those preconceptions. Caife Feirste, for a start, serves up better than decent food. Some of it is seriously memorable. Far from being community centre fodder (stew, shepherd’s pie, chips) the menu is extensive (and coeliac friends have praised its content).
There is home-made lasagne with salad, spaghetti Bolognese with parmesan, and rotoli — fresh pasta rolls filled with spinach, parmesan and ricotta covered in cream-and-mushroom sauce, served with garlic bread.
Among other starters and mains is a distinctive Latina influence with enchiladas and torta salata, and as you flick through the attractive menu you see the irresistibles that include full Irish breakfast or bricfeasta Gaeilge iomlán (for £4.90 you get two sausages, two bacon rashers, black and white pudding, sauté mushrooms, grilled tomato, fried egg and potato and soda bread — for the same money’s there’s eggs Benedict).
But the dish that will forever stick in our memory was the pie of the day. The advisor had ordered the chicken pie and compared it to my torta salata with a hint of a sneer. This was a proper pie, she said. The huge wedge of chicken, stuffing, carrots and gravy created two cliff faces sandwiched in a flaky puff pastry that was perfect.
The server had suggested this as the best thing on the menu and she was right. The advisor let me have a go. The chicken pieces were generous and not overcooked, retaining lots of deep chicken flavours. The carrot chunks were soft but not mashed or mushy and provided a welcome sweetness that was demanded by the inclusion of stuffing. Classic, textbook sausage, bread, and sage stuffing provided great depth of earthy flavours, the likes of which I’ve never enjoyed in a pie.
The teenagers were equally impressed with their spicy Southern chicken burger, which had all the tenderness and flavour of a quality meat.
Pauline’s apple pie with whipped cream was of the same quality with good apples, a hint of cinnamon, which didn’t overwhelm, and closed the meal happily on a light note.
Apart from the coffee, which I found rather bitter and undrinkable, Caife Feirste’s offerings make it worth a visit. Apart from being a very pleasant environment in which to spend a while (the book shop beside the restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously and does a good line in inexpensive gifts), the value for money ratio is pretty much impossible to beat. Let’s hope more places with this level of quality food and service open in west Belfast.
Chicken burger x 2 £13.80
Pie of the day £6.90
Sweet chilli sauce £0.70
Garlic mayo £0.70
Diet Pepsi £1.70
Glass wine £2.90