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Restaurant review: Common Grounds in Belfast

12-24 University Avenue, Belfast. Tel: 028 9032 6589

By Joris Minne

Restaurants, bars and cafes operating as social enterprises can be a bit worthy. Unless there is something particularly attractive about the experience, the punter will find themselves supporting it and spending money there simply as an act of charity. I suspect for some operators it won't matter if the food, service or environment are amateur: it's all in a good cause.

Except that it's not just down to that. Look at Dr B's, the Barnardo's showcase cafe in Belfast's Bridge Street which serves up wholesome, beautifully cooked and professionally served lunches and employs adults with learning difficulties, many of whom then go on to work in fully commercial restaurants.

Take the John Hewitt bar which remains close to its roots as an employment and training centre and yet has struck a chord to become one of Belfast's best loved pubs.

And what about the great work of Stepping Stones, the social enterprise agency which operates cafes and, like Dr B's, employs adults with learning difficulties?

Then there is Common Grounds, a cafe restaurant in the heart of student land in Belfast's Queen's Quarter. The objective here is different. It's more of a fundraising tool generating money to pay for practical measures in the fight against poverty.

The first thing you see at the head of the menu is the proud proclamation that "…over half our staff are volunteers and we give away ALL of our profits to two charities: 'Foodbank' which gives emergency food supplies to people in crisis and 'Global Kitchen' which trains refugees and asylum seekers. Our passion and the heart of who we are is to be a community full of life that impacts and brings about change in our city and culture; everyone has a story, why not be part of ours?"

Noble and upbeat stuff indeed. You'd need a heart of Belfast sleech not to want to be part of this. And while my job commands me to study the offer rather than the sentiment nobody can ignore the natural marriage between the hospitality sector and charity and extending a bit of help to those who need it.

All grand so far, but does Common Grounds lean too heavily on the charity label and the patience and understanding of its clientele and then allows itself slip into the amateur category? Well, yes and no.

The food is not very interesting but it is wholesome, nutritious and cheap. A 'Yum bowl' turns out to be made of rice covered in a porridge-like, hot hummus further topped with guacamole, tomato salsa and sour cream. There are some green olives on top too. Hot hummus is not a great idea. The chick peas in a dahl work well in a curry house but hummus does not. It requires a cool temperature so its texture does not become overwhelming, especially on top of rice as a kind of sauce.

Other things perform slightly better. The pancake stack with bacon is generous but may have come straight out of the packet; somehow they don't feel or taste freshly made and are uncannily Ormo-like. This is fine in your home when you're in a rush but not out.

Smashed avocado on toast with bacon is a bit on the thin side. The slices are too big and thick: better going for something thinner and crispier on which to mound the avocado thickly. It's all in the aesthetics.

Tray bakes are vast and a row erupts over the validity of the fifteens which I think are perfect but which the bakers at the table today argue have not set properly and are too moist. Whatever.

And while the food comes into question, the service, friendly and welcoming as it is, remains nonetheless a shambles. Orders arrive and 15 minutes pass between delivery of the first dish and the last one, and there are five of us.

Later, half the dishes are cleared (long after we have finished) and a further 30 minutes tick heavily by before I decide to clear the rest of them myself and deposit them on an empty table beside us.

It's a pity but the place is not that busy and I can't figure out what could have interrupted the service so severely unless they share a computer system with BA.

The coffee, is however, a triumph.

Common Grounds may be relying on the good will of its punters who are patient and forgiving of poor service. And this is possibly where it does a disservice to the wider social enterprise movement.

The clue is in the word "enterprise". If it's not an enterprise with all the training, investment and commitment to good service and products that goes with it (see Dr B's, Stepping Stones, The John Hewitt) then it's just the punters doing them a favour for a good cause.

The bill

Cinnamon scone £2.25

Sourdough and avocado £4.65

Yum bowl x 2 £11.90

Nachos £4.55

Soup £4.95

Pancake stack x 2 £10.90

Chicken sandwich £5.25

Coffees x 7 .................................. £15.00

Total £59.05

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