Joris Minne: Harlem Café
One of Belfast’s lunchtime greats,|the Harlem Café is also well worth|a visit for dinner at the weekends
Bedford Street in Belfast has skyscrapers (well, there’s Windsor House and Bedford House), posh jewellers, a fancy shirt shop, the BBC at one end and City Hall at the other.
It’s also home to the mighty Ulster Hall, the offices of top people’s advisers Deloitte and the very glitzy headquarters of Invest NI. It’s about as urban as Belfast can get.
So it’s no surprise that tucked in the middle of this bustling business and shopping district lies Harlem Café, a tribute to the old comforts of fat sofas, the decorum imposed by china teapots and a level of service that would pass muster in a Lyons Corner House from 1960s London’s West End.
Harlem Café, a restaurant, antiques rental unit, art gallery and deli, is the brainchild of Faye Rogers, a woman whose sense of hospitality is so instinctive she makes even the most wary old gouger feel like they are the only person in the room.
Prinicipally a lunchtime venue, Harlem opens for dinner and entertainment on Saturday nights. Friday nights should be more restrained without the music. We went last Saturday night and wanted to move in permanently.
The white wood panelling, old framed photographs and paintings — some terrible, others wonderful — and the general sense of Edwardian eccentricity promoted by the cushions, upholstery and dark furniture create a very seductive atmosphere, Faye’s web of delight. Before I’d even sat down, I already didn’t care what the food would be like because I was happy just to be there.
The adviser and I would know the place during the day. Its cocooning effect is particularly difficult to leave if you are heading back out into the cold winds of Bedford Street to the office. So it may be that having a table for the entire evening feels like a real escape.
The dinner menu differs from lunchtime. Those lunch paninis are very handy if you’re stuck for time. And you won’t see the now famous Harlem Ulster Fry after lunchtime, either. But in the evening there are other specials, including, on this night a Vietnamese chicken curry with egg noodles.
There are six of us, four under the age of 12, and orders for a variety of starters, mains and sides display the broad appeal of Harlem. Scampi, mini burgers and pasta dishes will always strike the right chord with pre-teens. If your children are anything like ours, they get anxious about whether or not there will be anything they like. Once that’s out of the way, everyone can relax. Which is what we did.
A selection of breads and dips was quickly delivered while I was the only one to order a starter — a special of white onion and thyme soup.
A deep bowl soon arrived accompanied by a lightly toasted slice of fresh wheaten bread. The thick, roughly blended soup, the colour of plain risotto, had all the intriguing floral flavours of the thyme mixed with the hot onion. It was a great combination.
The mains that ensued were no less impressive. The scampi were generous great lumps of crispy gold and juicy salty interiors. The mini burgers were tall and thick and the plentiful salads and skinny fries brought with them a peaceful silence while everyone ate up.
The Vietnamese curry had all the restorative powers of a winter bouillon and the egg noodles worked beautifully. Although not a great fan of chicken breast — the meat from the thighs would have worked better, possibly — the sliced pieces were tender and tasty, not overcooked or tired.
As the children were beaten back one by one by the big portions, they found solace in the booth’s huge cushions. We were at the very back of the restaurant. This offers a commanding view on the entire operation. Soon, all four of them were tucked up together like kittens, surveying the world around them from the deep comfort of the booth.
Occasional checks by staff prevented the adviser and me from falling asleep, too.
We looked around and noted the age range. There were very young ones, very old ones and everything in between. We all like the simple things. But when the simple things are wrapped up in a warm and inviting dining room like Harlem, they become irresistible.
Breads and dips £4.95
Onion soup £7.25
Vietnamese special x 2 £29.90
Mini burgers x 2 £25.90
Scampi and chips x 2 £25.90
Fanta x 4 £7.60
Large water £4.50
Glass wine £4.25
34 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7FF
Tel: 028 9024 4860; harlembelfast.com