Restaurant review: We take a bite out of City Picnic
2-6 Castle Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9024 6194
When Gourmet Burger Bank closed five years ago, Northern Ireland was plunged into darkness. Parents ate their young, the institutions collapsed around our ears and thousands fled the country.
This is only a mild exaggeration. The golden age of Belfast Burgerdom had come to an end and in its place came a poor man's Il Pirata, which would be short-lived. It was a deep blow and the city's burger movement would not recover for years.
But in another part of the forest, unbeknownst to many of us and only months after the GBB closure, an Armagh man quietly opened City Picnic in a corner of the heart of Belfast.
Tucked into a beautifully bright and airy space behind Anderson & McAuley, the former department store which now houses Zara, City Picnic picked up where GBB had left and started making quality burgers.
Arthur McAnerney, a man who grew up in the midst of quality beef and lamb (my mother will only buy meat from McAnerney's butchers in Armagh), decided that it would be a great idea to fill the gap.
Four years on and City Picnic is now the acknowledged burger joint de choix in Belfast. In fact, Arthur, a quietly spoken and considered kind of man, is happy for me to tell you that if you don't think his burgers are the best in Belfast, he'll give you your money back.
Gavin Gregg, who joined him 18 months ago in a partnership agreement, is in the kitchen. He is a coeliac, therefore everything on the menu is available in gluten-free form.
"It's so central to my life that the staff here know all about it, so no more embarrassing moments for any coeliac customers," he says. There's even gluten-free beer here.
The menu is not unlike GBB's and you can expect to see a good array of popular street food, including the likes of chicken wings, chicken strips, six kinds of chips (including sweet potato fries), salads, pulled pork and two vegetarian burgers.
There are shakes, loads of bottled and draft beers. They even do jugs of cocktails at happy hour from 5 til 7 for a tenner.
But are the burgers up to Sam Spain's fomer GBB standard-bearers? Yes - and possibly even better.
There is no disputing the quality of the ingredients, but it's the structure which makes more sense than anything.
Let's face it, eating a burger should really only be done in private. It's a slobbery, messy and undignified way of feeding yourself.
Unless you go to a fast-food chain, where the burger can be compressed to a puck the size of a cotton make-up removal pad, burgers have to be taken apart to be eaten. Which kind of takes away from the animal joy of being able to take a single bite out of the thing and to marvel at the different tastes and textures in your mouth, from the soft bap and crunchy lettuce to the salty mayo and gently resisting beef patty.
But your City Picnic burger allows for this. The bap (from French Village) is brioche and light as a cloud, the ratio of meat, onion ring, lettuce and tomato within allows plenty of volume, but not too much height (so you can get your teeth into it) and the sauces within are not overloaded, or too much, which means little if any leaking, or squelching. It's a remarkably civilised burger.
The biggest seller right now is the chicken, mozzarella and bacon, which comes with a little pesto and BBQ sauce. There's enough to keep it moist and appetising and the flavours are unexpectedly well-married and happy together.
The chilli skinny fries I had were spicy and plentiful. Altogether, this is a lunch place which makes burgers acceptable in polite society.
The fact that the two guys behind it are there every day and that their staff are among the most alert and friendly means the quality control is constant.
Chicken burger (mozzarella and bacon) and chips £7.70