For years, Belfast’s critics bleated about how little there was to do in the city on a Sunday.
Despite clear evidence of a healthy network of sports clubs, churches and Sunday schools in full swing on the Sabbath, the detractors kept criticising: there was nowhere to get a bite to eat, enjoy a pint or indulge in culture.
Most of us knew exactly where to go for a Sunday pint, a fry and a bit of live music. Trouble was, depending on your Ordnance Survey position, you couldn’t really put it out in brochures for fear of a visit by the constabulary, the preacher or your local community representative.
Thankfully all this has changed and café owners can now lift the shutters, switch the lights on and put the wee blackboard on the footpath outside the door advertising bands, brunches and breakfasts for prices ranging from £5.95 for a seven-piece fry to a £15 plate of mussels and chips (Bloody Mary included).
But if the availability of a Sunday brunch is now more accessible, there remains a problem in its definition.
For most of us, the Ulster Fry is the no-messing catch-all meal which is as appropriate at 7am as it is 12 hours later. As brunch, it is crown emperor among dishes. Anything else struggles to match it.
Café Conor’s brunch choices of waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs (with a multitude of accessories including salmon and bacon), scones, tray bakes and so on, try every day to topple the Ulster Fry from its pedestal.
Yet for £6.75, Conor’s fry of soda, potato bread, two bacon slices, two sausages, a free range egg, a block of black pudding, half a tomato, some mushrooms and baked beans, is almost impossible to resist. Harlem Cafe is another classy brunch destination. We went on Saturday and again, the choice of egg-based brunches was still available at 2pm. Their Ulster Fry is also WBF heavyweight champion standard, made with fresh, quality components.
Bert’s Bar, part of the glittering Merchant Hotel, specialises in brunches and promotes one for £15 on a Sunday. It includes a Bloody Mary and the sweetest jazz sounds.
But on this occasion, (last Sunday) the absence of a single pancake, waffle or bacon slice in the brunch menu came as a huge disappointment. Instead, the offer was crispy duck crepe with plum chutney, moules frites, Portavogie prawn tagliatelle with chilli pistou, courgette, toasted pine nuts and garlic bread, steak baguette or crab hash with spinach and lemon butter sauce.
Whoever was in charge of the kitchen that morning needs to read the Book of Brunch Rules: “There shall be eggs and pastries, coffee and tea, vodka, ice and tomato juice, a pair of sunglasses and two aspirins.”
One place which adheres to the Book (I made up the last three rules) is the new Cargoes on the Lisburn Road. A well-established fine-food café, it recently came under the ownership of Stephen Rogan. Rogan threw out the hideously uncomfortable furniture (I kept sliding off those chairs), kept almost everything else including most of the staff and retained the values which everybody cared about — home baking, fresh food and quality coffee.
There’s no doubt that someone who can introduce Italian bread to the Ulster Fry shows boldness and daring. Cargoes’ ‘breakfast ciabatta’ contained a sliced tomato, two thick pads of grilled cured bacon and, on the side, two sausages. There was also a bit of melted cheese on the inside of the crusty ciabatta.
For £6.95 this was good value. Pancakes and bacon for the rest of the table were freshly prepared. The lemon polenta cake made on the premises was outstanding. It is, however, Rogan’s charm and attention to detail which will have us back repeatedly. Walking past our table, he noticed the uneaten chocolate muffins at our table. He enquired as to why these had been left. There’s fruit in them, said Clare squirming a bit. He agreed there shouldn’t be fruit in them, he didn’t like them either, and, sure, have something else and a couple of coffees on me for your trouble.
With service like that on a Sunday, who needs church?
Pancakes and bacon x 3 £16.50
Breakfast ciabatta £6.95
Lemon polenta cake £3.50
Coffees x 4 £5.40
Hot Chocolate £1.95
613 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7GTB
Tel: 028 90 665 451.