When it comes to an Ulster breakfast, Cafe Conor offers the best bang for your buck.
From time to time we have tackled the subject of food as part of our collective personality. What is it that makes food from the north of Ireland any different from the rest of the island or, for that matter, from the rest of the UK? The Scottish have haggis, neeps and tatties, the English have Yorkshire pudding, chicken tikka masala and spotted dick and the Welsh just have rarebit.
Down in the sophisticated streets of Dublin there are oyster bars (although the oysters are more likely to be from the black north than Galway Bay) but there’s technically no longer such a thing as Dublin Bay prawns — known everywhere else as langoustines. There are unique Eddie Rocket’s burgers and locally grown and reared produce and beef aplenty in the restaurants.
Yet there is no real dish or raw material in any of these nations that provides as much traction to a region’s identity as the Ulster Fry does for our wee country. The haggis is just not widely loved enough even by the Scots to achieve the widespread adoration enjoyed by the Ulster Fry. Its impact on our collective identity is total. A good Ulster Fry defines us as a bit savage (the black pudding), a bit robust (the breads), a bit refined (the mushrooms and bleeding egg) and a bit cheeky (the salty, crispy bacon languidly stretched out by the fit-to-burst golden sausages).
Is the Ulster Fry a cross-community dish, though? Does it truly represent the North’s diversity? Well yes but only because so many places do an Ulster Fry so badly while others do it with love. On the basis of this observation, however, we might wrongly conclude that Antrim is the worst place on earth for an Ulster Fry because it is home to Belfast International Airport, whose cafe once served up a shameful parody of a fry. Thankfully the cafe has now been eradicated by the gleaming new structures at the airport. A return visit is due. We might also make the same mistake in reverse and declare Fermanagh as the spiritual home and cradle of the Ulster Fry, based on what the Manor House Hotel at Killadeas produces.
The real point is that the Ulster Fry divides as many people in Northern Ireland as it unites, in almost the same way as politics and religion do. Ulster Fries all sound and look the same. They’re largely made of the same stuff (although you might find the tomatoes a little farther apart on breakfast plates west of the Bann) and they cause colossal rows when it comes to naming their components: is it fadge or potato bread?
There is no platform or annual competition in Northern Ireland to help identify the best Ulster Fry. For this we have to rely on an English newspaper to tell us that in 2009, the best breakfast in Northern Ireland was that being served up in Cafe Conor, in Belfast’s Stranmillis Road. It remains uncertain as to which particular breakfast was being referred to because Conor puts out all sorts of very high-quality breakfasts, ranging from deep crispy waffles with bacon and maple syrup to various sizes of Ulster Fry. I am betting the award went to Cafe Conor’s ‘Big Breakfast’, a 12-piece feast of a daily starter that’s the kind of dish after which you’d be happy enough to be led to the hangman’s noose. If I had a final wish before an execution squad shot me to death it would be a pot of tea, the menu from Cayenne (for the memories) and the Conor Ulster Fry.
There is a ‘Wee Breakfast’ on the menu that has five pieces. In terms of economic mathematics, you’d be better ordering one big one and sharing it.
The black pudding is crumbling and dry and works exquisitely with the sunny-side-up fried egg. Mixing the warm yolk and the dark little crumbs of the pudding is a magical moment before the two blend to make one of the world’s finest mouthfuls. The bacon — thick enough not to curl up — has been gently fried to turn the fat into crisp, juicy bites while the meat remains tender and flaky rather than tough and rubbery. The sausages are quality affairs with a coarse mix of fresh porky bits full of flavours and the soda and potato breads are dry enough to provide plenty of bedding for the buttery mushrooms and big half of tomato. Not a spot of grease or oil on the plate is a fair indication of the love, care and attention devoted to this simple dish.
Cafe Conor just gets better and better and it doesn’t stop at breakfasts. As a frequent lunchtime visitor I’ve had a fair share of the daily specials as well as the old favourites including the lush lasagne, fish and chips and stir fries.
It’s a popular place with local academics from Queen’s and Methody and, despite the arrival of competition with the Ulster Museum’s new cafe/restaurant, Conor seems to be benefiting from the new numbers of culture vultures cruising around Stranmillis these days.
It is a beautiful place, particularly in daylight hours. The massive skylight that must have been the main attraction for its famous tenant, painter William Conor, bathes the room in a bright yet gentle glow. The blond wood tables and floors provide a chapel-like echo, while the main communal table in the centre of the room always bears a big vase full of flowers. Big shapely nude silhouettes by Neil Shawcross are hung around the walls but sit uncomfortably here, although similar shapes on ceramics he designed and which are also on display are beautiful.
It should be on anyone’s list of must-visit cafes while in Belfast and, frankly, it does raise the Ulster Fry to a new level. It’s a bit like going to see Mission Impossible 3 in the QFT. You know it’s not the world’s most complicated movie and that it’s designed to tickle some basic senses but it’s all right because you’re in an arthouse cinema, which means it’s post modernist and cool. Have an Ulster Fry in Cafe Conor and you’ll feel the same way.
Wee Breakfast £4.75
Big Breakfast £6.25
Waffle with bacon £3.95
Hot chocolate £2.50
Tea for two £4.40