How immaculate Deli Lites serves up great lunchtime fare at recession-beating prices.
There are so many ways by which to judge a restaurant but in general the top four criteria tend to be food, mood, service and price. The food has to be good, no matter what shape it takes. A burger should be a pillow of textures and tastes with decent bun, lettuce, tomato and firm beef pattie. A lobster dish should be in season and a steak shouldn’t smell of liver.
The mood covers everything from the colour of the carpet to whether or not the chairs are comfortable.
But there are other, more subtle ways of making a qualified judgement on a restaurant. The shape of the crockery, for instance. I have real problems eating out of those off-kilter bowls that were so popular in California in the '80s and which pop up now and again in country restaurants trying to be hip. Lighting can ruin everything too, particularly when it is arranged so as to cast a shadow of your head over the plate making it hard to see what you’ve got on the end of your fork.
But the one qualifier I had never registered before was tidiness. If tidiness were the last thing on your mind, then you should make a trip to Newry’s Deli Lites in Drumalane Mill beside the Quays Shopping Centre.
Newry is the Tijuana of Ireland — a boom town crazed by cross-border retail trade and echoing to the sound of a thousand gridlocked car horns and accents from all over the island. You expect a certain chaos factor as you enter Newry. You do not expect serenity and calm. Or tidiness.
Like some kind of antidote to the good-natured madness outside, Deli Lites which describes itself as a gourmet sandwich company (and has outlets in Belfast, Dundalk and Warrenpoint) prides itself in the gentle precision of everything it does. Sure enough, there is a made-to-order sandwich counter for lunchtime take-aways. The glass counter is sparklingly clean and the aluminium containers filled with bacon bits, egg mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes and the like on display below in the chiller are spotless. But there is also a very attractive sit-down bistro that combines the warm sensual odours of fresh coffee with bare brick and timber, high ceilings and robust furniture.
The neatness of the place is remarkable. While on the one hand creating a laid-back New York loft kind of vibe, the neatness and orderliness is everywhere, from the menu (which kindly warns you that “the calories quoted are subject to the portions and ingredients as per specification therefore any alterations will affect the calorie content”) to the furniture and the room. Even the wacky old posters on the walls, which are
safely above children’s sticky fingers range, are lined up precisely like the military campaign flags and regimental insignia in an Anglican cathedral.
But the most wonderful expression of this order comes on the plate. A puff pastry tart with buffalo mozzarella, roasted butternut squash, sun-blushed tomatoes and spicy chicken, served with a selection salads and coleslaw sounds like a bit of a riot with all those flavours, textures, hot and cold. Not in Deli Lites.
The large plate (the meal costs £5.50!) is as tightly and intelligently filled as an IKEA kitchen flatpack — and just as neatly arranged. To maximise the use of space, Deli Lites has housed the generous portions in an array of little pots surrounding the pastry tart and salad leaves so that it looks like a tiny pristine formal garden with herbaceous borders. And everything on the plate is delicious, crunchy, flaky, spicy and bursting with fresh flavours.
The tart is more like a square-shaped puff pastry pizza and the contents of chicken and butternut squash pieces have hints of curry. The red cabbage coleslaw is sublime and the tomatoes almost Italian in their intensity.
A quick survey of the room — which was busy at this weekday lunchtime with shoppers, office workers and tourists — and one can see the other two specials are doing a great trade too. The “vegetable soup and Slimmer Sandwich or bacon and egg mayo with spring onion on granary or white bread” at £3.95 must be the cheapest meal available and therefore in big demand from the hordes come up from Louth, Meath and farther afield for the monthly load of toilet rolls and Daniel O’Donnell box sets.
The “toasted focaccia with sweet chilli chicken, roasted onions, iceberg, tomato and chilli mayo served with house salad and coleslaw” at £4.95 is flying out of the kitchen too and gives you a fair idea of how healthy an option eating out can be.
The respect and passion for the food and how it is presented here is exemplary. There is a place for extreme tidiness when it is aimed at celebrating the food and eating experience as it is in Deli Lites. The service, incidentally, is flawless — charming, smiley and quick. The business itself relies on fast turn-over and the customers clearly don’t have much time on their hands — they haven’t come to the Quays to eat at Deli Lites. They've come to shop first.
I, however, will negotiate my way through the crazy hordes of Newry to bring the adviser to Deli Lites. If there’s time to go to the shops afterwards, then so be it.
Puff pastry tart £5.50
Soup and sandwich £4.45
Sparkling water £1.50