Restaurant review: we take a bite out of Bubbacue
12 Callender Street, Belfast. Tel 028 9027 8220
Belfast's food scene is going through interesting times. Until recently, the trend had been for street food served in as rough and as ready an environment as could be tolerated by a younger audience hungry for food you could eat without cutlery.
Eating out was becoming an unstuffy affair, less of something your parents did with their friends and more in line with the generation's interests in online gaming and casual vandalism. Restaurants started to look like bombed-out classrooms with interiors designed by hand grenades and drug-induced fits.
Just as this style started to become the norm, in came a new wave of slow-cooked, hot-smoked, hand-pulled meats and Southern US-influenced barbecued foods and accompanying stripped wood and gingham. And that threw the youth into some confusion. Was Kentucky rustic the new thing?
It makes sense to most people that a particular food offer should be matched by the environment in which it is served. A chilled Pouilly Fuisse will always taste better in a skinny wine glass at a table covered in white linen served by clever, smiling staff; likewise, a pulled pork burger will be more enjoyable when wrapped in grease-proof paper, flung at you by a pierced teen from behind an aluminium pass and consumed with one hand while perched on a stool annoying your acquaintances on WhatsApp.
One man has understood youth's appetite for changing trends better than most. John Blisard, the American who came to Belfast and created Boojum, has ignited a new phase of barbecued and smoked foods in Bubbacue, his latest creation.
When it first opened, three years ago, Bubbacue was conceived to be rough-and-ready and young ones flocked to it in such great numbers that, if you weren't there by 1pm, you could find they had run out of that succulent, 14-hour smoked beef brisket.
John has since reconfigured the restaurant and Bubbacue has ditched its homey, rural charm and replaced it with something more urban: a slick, modern interior, which features white tiles, beautifully presented wood-mounted images of old Americana and coffee-coloured upholstery. It looks fabulously unexpected for a barbecue/smoker and this is a problem for some diehards.
I was once a trustee of the Queen's Film Theatre and the board was tasked with making some changes in order to boost numbers and increase revenue. Our big idea was to shut down the back-alley entrance to QFT, a grotty, poorly lit, dangerous-looking place and, instead, have cinemagoers enter through a front door along the much more elegant University Square.
A gorgeous bar area would serve drinks and classy gourmet sandwiches to those waiting to see their chosen film in one of the two cinemas.
There was uproar. How dare we rip out the heart of QFT, destroy its arthouse credentials and make it all bourgeois and nice. That back alley had just the right element of boho loucheness to make it edgily exclusive, they cried.
But, while the clench-fisted, bearded lentil-eaters and their husbands howled about the loss, numbers steadily grew as new cinemagoers discovered QFT 2.0.
John Blisard says he is facing a similar reaction. There are some who accuse him of having killed the magic mood he created in the first place. But ignore this, because it is a row about cosmetics and presentation.
The fact remains that the 14-hour smoking process, the barbecuing, the production of hand-cut chips and making of the sauces remains entirely unchanged and as authentic as it ever was. So the real question is: is it any good?
There is a choice of chicken, pork and brisket, as well as vegetarian. But the key attraction is the brisket, a uniquely smoked piece of meat from locally reared herds and which, surprisingly, does not suffer from an overwhelming sense of having been in a house fire.
Smoking is not an easy art. You don't want to destroy the delicate flavours by over-smoking. Getting it right is an unusual skill and Bubbacue has nailed it.
There is nothing quite so satisfying as the flavours and textures of slow-smoked pork, beef and chicken and when it's put together with quality rolls, good sides and some of the best fries in town, it provides a moment of hedonistic bliss.
It can be messy, but that's okay - we know what we're in for. There's an excellent beef brisket chilli which can come with mash, so you can eat that with cutlery: dignity intact.
The new-look Bubbacue is fine fast dining. The place is buzzing, yet peaceful, and no matter how busy (I've been half-a-dozen times at 1pm and always manage to find a seat), you'll find a corner for yourself.
If you are one of those who think Bubbacue has done what Bob Dylan did when he went electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, then get over it. Because it is thigh-smackingly outstanding.
Beef sandwich £5.00
Flying Dog IPA £4.50