How this delightful little Lisburn cafe is serving up huge portions of fabulous food.
Years ago as a Tourist Board press officer my job involved coaxing reluctant travel and food writers and broadcasters from abroad to fabulous Northern Ireland. It was a tough sell: in the mid-90s these people were receiving seductive invitations each week to Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Cannes, Jo’burg and other exciting and heavenly destinations to stay in the poshest and most glamorous hotels, to eat in the best restaurants and to be pampered by the most beautiful people on earth and here we were trying to make an impression with Tollymore Park, the Ring of Gullion and Free Derry Corner.
The idea was that the more Northern Ireland could be talked about in terms of tourism and holidays, the less impact the image of a burning bus on the Falls Road would have.
Ask any Northern Ireland hotelier: does a 15-minute holiday programme on Sky or BBC dedicated to the wonders of the six counties neutralise a news report featuring men in balaclavas and a burning bus? No. The ten-second shot of the burning bus is a far longer lasting image than an entire six-part series focusing on the loveliness of the north presented by Gary Lineker and his glamorous partner — it can mark a million TV viewers for life and leave a lasting impression of a country in anarchic breakdown on hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Back in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s the Tourist Board fought a valiant PR battle with the news media. Even after the ceasefires, which were widely reported around the world and which prompted an avalanche of travel writers and broadcasters (all claiming to be the first to write about the place as a holiday destination), all it took was a handful of heroes with petrol bombs to capture the news headlines for one night and an entire year of positive publicity was wiped out. We’d have to start all over again.
We briefed travel editors and correspondents on the parallel reality, the other face of Northern Ireland while their news colleagues put occasional stories about dissidents, sectarian flare-ups and Drumcree on the front pages.
In the midst of all this we did succeed in attracting the occasional food writer. The elegant and sparkly-eyed Matthew Fort, now famous as one of the three judges on the BBC’s Great British Menu, was then food writer for the Guardian and among the first reporters who wanted to know about Northern Ireland’s food culture. I remember taking him to a Belfast restaurant accompanied by some Tourist Board members. One, a man not used to eating with a knife and fork, hissed to me as I tried to settle the guests at the table, that there was far too much choice on the menu.
I never forgot the moment. Three thousand fatalities, countless survivors and a country riven by religious and political division trying desperately to sell itself as an irresistible holiday destination and this guy was exercised by the content in the menu. On the one hand it showed that there was indeed a parallel reality, one Northern Ireland for some people, and another for others.
But he came to mind last week when I went to the new Lisburn restaurant, Chilli Limes, a classy little cafe in decaying Bridge Street, close to the town square. The former Tourist Board man (thank God they are far more forward-thinking these days) would have loved it — there is only a choice of two specials of the day, no drink licence and a fridge full of soft drinks that has a glass door so you can just point at the can you want.
But if the choice is limited, the content of
the dish of the day is extraordinarily varied. Today’s dish was a modest sounding bowl of pasta with Italian cured meats, fried onions, baked peppers, rocket and a creamy sauce. What was actually presented was one of the most appetising and voluminous dishes of steaming penne to ever appear on a table this side of Turin. Generously supported by rings of salami and smoked sausage, strips of tender roasted red peppers, bite size chunks of chewy sun-dried tomatoes, grated Parmesan and a few leaves of rocket, here was a plate at £7.50 fit to keep any hard-working Italian car maker fortified for a full day’s output.
The penne was perfectly al dente and the accompanying bits and pieces were similarly sized so as to mix in beautifully with the pasta. The big flavours and textures all competed with each other to make each mouthful a contest to determine which one was the favourite. I loved the salami but then the sun-dried tomatoes claimed first place, only to be usurped moments later by the penne itself. The smoky, creamy sauce keeping it all together like an orchestra conductor reining in its recalcitrant but wonderfully entertaining musicians.
It was an absolute joy of a meal but one so big I was unable to finish it despite a huge appetite.
The choice of tray bakes on show in the chilled glass cabinet showed that the generosity of Richard Spragg, the chef patron, extended everywhere. But nowhere was this largesse more obvious than in the Pixar productions lemon meringue pie. The pie looked like a prop from Monsters Inc — huge, bright and beckoning. I asked for a slice and the cartoon became reality. A textbook, no, a comic book version of a slice of lemon meringue pie was presented. And when the fork fell through the soft meringue and continued its journey through the two inch-thick lemon curd to the pastry below, I knew I had found the definitive pie, the lemon meringue by which all lemon meringues should be judged.
Chilli Limes does all sorts of dishes according to local man Jim, my guide that day. There are stews and roasts, chowders and salads, depending on whatever Richard Spragg puts on that day. But pasta dishes are a distinct forte here so phone ahead and see what’s on. You’ll be glad of the recommendation.
Pasta with Italian cured meats £7.50
Lemon Meringue £4
Mineral water £2