Restaurant review: Harvest Market Cafeteria, George Best Belfast City Airport
The jet age has come and gone and air travel is no longer glamorous. Regional airports are all quiet turbo-props and whisper jets, ritual humiliation at the hands of sullen security personnel and criminally expensive shops.
But now and again you can clutch at a travel experience which will remind you that pleasure can be had if you try hard enough.
George Best Belfast City Airport used to be a collection of mobile huts and you had to find your way through a maze of narrow corridors thumping along on the flimsy floors for miles. And that was just to get to the toilets.
Nowadays, the airport terminal is a grander, gleaming place with proper "facilities".
Once you've checked in and gone through security, you climb up the stairs and the first thing you'll see is a sign which says Harvest Market. It's the cafeteria and beyond it are ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the runway and the Cavehill above. The view is breathtaking.
Harvest Market is part of a chain of airport cafeterias. You'll find one in Dublin Airport, too. Based in the US, its owners claim a turnover of $2.5bn. This must be one of the most lucrative restaurant models in existence.
Think about it: who are they competing with? The audience is captive. They can't even bring their own sandwiches, or picnic, in as security wont allow it.
So Harvest Market has a free rein to serve whatever they want and charge handsomely for it. There is a choice of stuff which appears reasonably priced and quite a deal is made of the local provenance of the food.
The owners say Harvest market is inspired "by the city of Belfast's popular local market".
"Harvest Market at BHD (George Best Belfast City Airport) is a custom-designed restaurant featuring a menu of the finest and freshest locally sourced produce - from traditional home-cooked meals to sizzling stir fry dishes. Ireland's own Fish & Chips and Beef & Guinness stew will greet travellers looking for local flavour.
"Deli sandwiches and baguettes - perfect to grab and go - oven-baked pizza and even Asian stir fry are all on display, so travellers can view the variety of fresh options. Biscuits from celebrated local food ambassador, Jenny Bristow of Take the Biscuit, are sure to be a favourite, while the very finest blends of teas and coffees by Ireland's S D Bell compliment (sic) all of Harvest Market's offerings."
The concept and design may be sound, but the execution reveals some flaws. I had the chicken teriyaki stir fry with noodles and even with the recalibration of review standards to accommodate the "airport food" category, it was barely edible. For the seemingly reasonable price of £8.75, you can't expect too much, but this was barely worth a tenth of that.
Too much salt, no flavour, very little volume, it was more of a small-town Friday night takeaway chicken chow mein. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it because of two factors: the staff and that hugely distracting view.
Staff in Harvest Market are helpful - not everyone in the queue understood how the self-serve system works and ended up at the till giving their order. Instead of being told to go back, get a tray and do it properly, staff did it for them. It shows consideration and true hospitality.
If you can grab a seat at the window (there's tons of room), it won't matter what's on your plate because watching planes take off and land is very therapeutic and that vast panorama which stretches from Carnmoney to the north all the way south-west to Divis and White Mountain is spectacular. Before you know it, you'll have eaten your lunch without realising.
It's a shame the teriyaki/chow mein was poor, as it's not the hardest thing to get right. On the brighter side, there's a cafe called Expressions at the other end of the departure lounge. It serves Lavazza coffee. The macchiato was one of the best in the city.
Chicken Teriyaki: £8.20
Magners Cider: £5.10