Restaurant review: We sample General Merchants Cafe
481 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9065 2708
The phenomenon of Ballyhackamore in east Belfast continues to surprise anyone with an appetite. Ballyhack has got it all: a Chinese with a reputation which draws punters from across the city, a curry house which may be small, but whose sense of hospitality is giant-sized and an array of seriously good bistros and brasseries which have helped create a whole boho vibe which is compelling and irresistible.
But now that there's no cat-swinging room left in the gentrifying district, the hipsters looking to set down roots and start their own versions of good restaurants are moving further out the Newtownards Road to Stormont.
It used to be that once you crossed the Knock dual carriageway heading east, you were effectively out of town in a region of stifling suburbia and secure Government buildings. But this is all changing now thanks to the arrival of a new cafe.
The General Merchants is the latest must-visit, go-to, not-to-be-missed restaurant, a place where beards and belly buttons meet Lycra and newspapers and a set of safely alternative sub-groups can relax and express their love of fixed-wheel cycling, crop tops and talking about their holidays in Cambodia.
The Australia-inspired General Merchants may be as contrived as an Irish bar in South Miami Beach, but it scores top marks on the three crucial fronts of service, food and ambience.
In fact, the hectic and almost frantic Saturday brunch time the younger teen and I dropped in, the mood was excited, cool, friendly and welcoming and with the gravitational pull of a funfair. Everyone was happy to wait for a seat, or a stool, as they just wanted to be near the place, to be involved somehow.
And once we actually got to sit down at a narrow shelf facing a map of Australia, we felt we had just been accepted into the world's most exclusive club.
And then things got even better. The modest menu displayed four unusual offerings, like Melbourne Breakfast of toasted three-seed bread, Vegemite, smashed avocado, parsley, capers, seeds, pickled red onion and lemon and two poached eggs, just to be sure.
There were clever Pancake 15s, which only an Ulster person with experience would understand: buttermilk pancakes served with digestive crumble, condensed milk caramel, cherry jus, marshmallow and toasted coconut. At £6.50, these are the bargain of Oz!
There's something called a B.L.A.T, which involves Zac's Bake House malt loaf, maple bacon, leaves, avocado, tomato and kewpie mayo. And for the cyclists clattering around in their cloggy cycle shoes there is Bircher muesli featuring organic oats soaked in apple, Clandeboye yoghurt, seasonal fruits, almond praline, seed and mint.
We managed the first two offers and both were so outstanding we didn't want to leave. That Melbourne breakfast would keep a team of sheep shearers clipping all day long.
The toasted sourdough was as big as a size seven Doc Marten sole, the long, deep ridge of mashed avocado sat atop like a mountain range and the two eggs marked the edge of the plate to create a small and surreal landscape.
Everything about this was divine: the crisp, salty bread, enlivened by the Bovril-like Vegemite scraped along it length, the smooth, thick avocado mix and the eggs, poached just right to allow the yoke to bleed everywhere.
The pancakes and their deconstructed 15s were a child's joy and the high stack made it almost unassailable.
Coffee, by the way, is very good, with a deep, dry, chocolatey finish. I had two to make sure. And a custard tart (slightly weakened for being made with short crust pastry, but then that might be an Australian thing).
As servers glided about the place in T-shirts and smiles, everyone was in an almost party mood. The sun had briefly come out and tables outside were in full swing. I've never been to Australia, but just for a moment east Belfast was on the coast of the Tasman Sea.
The General Merchants looks the part, too. The high-ceilinged, plain, bare bricked interior is very stylish in that unselfconscious, mildly industrial way. The food service system works brilliantly as was clear on a day when everyone descended on the place.
The place is not just very good, it's a triumph and I hope to be back asap.
Melbourne Breakfast £6.50
Pancakes 15 £6.50
Cappuccino sml (x2) £4.40
Custard tart £2.00
Sparkling water £1.35