Restaurant review: Raw Food Rebellion and Tony & Jen's
Raw Food Rebellion: 336 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 077 3006 7704. Tony & Jen's: 727 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 077 0880 8310
Health food was never sexy. It used to be in the sackcloth-and-ashes aisle. Next to the Dettol. But things have changed. Clean body warriors are engaged in a battle with obesity, booze and bad fast food and are building bunkers of resistance around Belfast in a strategic move to replace the temples of sugar and fat.
The signs are there. You will have noticed Slim's Healthy Kitchen now in three locations and a fourth about to open in the Omniplex in Dundonald. You will also have spotted an emergence of the vegetarian menu in many conventional restaurants.
There are all sorts of gluten-free alternatives on offer and any restaurant worth its salt, ahem, will be glad to provide vegan dishes. However, all this has been a relatively gentle slide away from chicken in breadcrumbs and chips without forsaking too many of life's simple pleasures.
Which is why, when you go to Slim's, you'll find a choice of chips, sweet potato or regular, burgers with bacon and cheese and a hefty Thai green curry, which is better and richer than anyone else's. This is health food with a very small 'h'.
Now, however, the first signs of hardcore, butt-kicking, salt-free, fat-free and body-is-a-temple fodder are clear. One is called Raw Food Rebellion, the other Tony & Jen's.
Don't be suckered by Tony & Jen's friendly sounding sign. They are the Professor Charles Francis Xavier and Polaris of the health food community.
Tony is a personal trainer and Jen is a model and journalist. Both are super-fit and eat and drink what's good for them. Now we, too, can be just like Tony and Jen by eating and drinking in their restaurant, which is right between Kwikfit (geddit?) and Peak Physique on the Lisburn Road. No need to go to the gym. Just eat their stuff and you'll be gorgeous, too.
However, they've thought this through. On the T&J menu are all sorts of comfortingly recognisable words, like stew and noodles, scones and cakes, salads and sandwiches. More intriguing is how good some of these dishes are.
I've been in a dozen times since it opened late last year, because the coffee is very good and those lunches are very tasty.
Take the stew, with or without beef. A deep and delicately flavoured bouillon supports a selection of chopped winter vegetables all with just the right bite, not over or undercooked. Add the beef option and you have something more substantial.
But the stew on its own is a winner, perfectly balanced, warming and reinforcing. I can't think of another vegetable stew, or soup, to be had in Belfast to match it for freshness and flavour.
They do breakfasts which feature eggs: egg O'Muffin (with option of grass-fed beef patty), sweet spuds & eggs, overnight oats, acai berry bowl and other exotics. There are smashed avocados, which are the hallmark of any health food joint.
Lunches have cute names, including the big-assed salad, Asian pot zoodle, skinny sides and less-skinny sides and a few other things. It's charming, beautifully done and if Tony doesn't come over to give you a 500-word analysis of probiotic drinks, you'll go away disappointed.
Compare this to Raw Food Rebellion a couple of hundred yards down the street. Is there room for two such temples of purity? Well, yes, actually. Because RFR is as hardcore as they come: it's vegan.
The mood is similar and the cute names they give to their dishes rings a bell. But they major on smoothies and shakes called the Shakira (the hips don't lie), the Kelis (my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard) and the Jay-Z (99 problems and my health ain't one). Having said that, their lunchtime specials are as memorable as T&J's.
A Mexican sandwich featured two doorsteps of wheaten bread on which were constructed layers of guacamole (see, the avocado's here), tangy rainbow slaw, pickled red onions and coriander. This was mighty on flavour and texture and gave me serious pause to consider vegetarianism as a lifestyle.
The advisor swore she'd be back for another roasted chickpea Caesar salad, which featured shredded kale and romaine lettuce and herbed cashew nuts and cheese. If you want milk in your coffees, it will have to be soy, nut, or anything else but dairy. But try them, they are excellent.
Incidentally, look out for the fizzy drink of choice in both restaurants - Panacea. It's locally made and sensational.
Health food used to consist of lettuce, brown rice and lentils. Raw Food Rebellion and Tony & Jen's are making a strong point that 21st-century health food has evolved.
It has flavour, texture and entertainment. It is sexy. And who knew vegans were having so much fun?
Raw Food Rebellion
Might Mexican Sandwich £5.95
Chickpea Caesar £4.95
Coffees (x2) £3.60
Tony & Jen's
Asian Pot Zoodles £4.95
Egg O'Muffin £3.95
Panacea drink (x2) £6.00