Restaurant review: We take a bite out of bistro SoZo
439 Antrim Road, Belfast. Tel: 028 9077 4436
While Belfast has enjoyed a proliferation of great restaurants in the last 10 years, parts of the city have remained benighted. One such area is the Antrim Road where apart from Cassidy's Bar (Up Armagh!) and the Lansdowne Hotel, the eating and drinking population is faced with little choice.
But quietly creeping into the north Belfast consciousness has been SoZo, a café of such hipster style and presence, that the only explanation for its secrecy is that locals have tried to keep it under wraps and strictly for themselves.
Half way up the Antrim Road, close to Tesco and set back from the road where a layby allows you to park easily, SoZo is a stylish diner with loads of charm. Interior mood is set to "soft industrial" with bits of shipping containers used to create separate areas, lots of glass walls and partitions to add privacy to the booths and providing very clever protection from the front door drafts.
Adding some drama (and comedy) to the interior are slightly raised theatre seats along the long tables running down the middle of the diner.
T-shirted service is slick, friendly and knowledgeable. Something about SoZo tells you it's been here for years. It feels established and the place oozes confidence and pride. And then there's owner Joe Baillie, the visionary who is full of praise for his staff and who clearly instils a culture of quality.
And the food matches the restaurant's character perfectly. There are dirty burgers, sharing planks and funky salads and stuff (I'm quoting from the menu), soups, stews, pasta, chips, toasties and just about everything else you'd want from a lunch diner.
There are specials. Today it's a choice of three including street food style fishballs with mango, lime and chilli salsa, slaw and fries, smoked ham hock chowder with house brown bread or a sour dough sandwich featuring taco-crumbed chicken, smashed avocado, lentil and spinach salsa and piri piri salted fat chips.
The ham hock chowder is a meal in itself. A large cup loaded up with a chowder that's more stew than soup is packed with small chunks of pink ham and cubes of new potatoes. The creamy soup has peas and parsley and the wintery mix is accompanied by a brick of dark crumbling wheaten bread the colour of turf.
The most popular dish in SoZo is the beef burrito. It comes with a plate of nachos and dips, and another dish of home fries with skin on.
The burrito is a fabulously polite affair. Unlike Belfast's other burritos there's nothing combative about the size of this one and SoZo has had the good sense to serve it halved and still in its aluminium shroud. Its innards are a beautifully balanced mix of savoury rice, slow cooked brisket and lettuce. The warmed lettuce is full of flavour and sits very comfortably with the spicier meat and rice.
The dips are outstanding. There is that mango, lime and chilli salsa which is sweet and spicy and intensely fresh, then there is the avocado with lentils and spinach which is unusually rich and substantial, something SoZo should put in a jar and sell separately.
A kolh-rabi slaw completes the trio of dips. It's a rich man's coleslaw made with yoghurt, mint, spices and chilli.
It also features alongside the fishballs which are dipped in panko bread crumbs and oven baked. I had a sample and hope they reappear as a regular feature rather than a one-off.
SoZo is not just good by north Belfast standards. It is setting new standards for that raft of bistro/café/diner which Belfast is so good at. There is a distinctiveness to SoZo which distinguishes it from all other lunch restaurants in the city and the fact that it is so well managed and clearly filled with enthused and committed people, it makes it a destination in its own right.
Next time you're thinking about a hidden secret, an off-the-beaten-track place to impress your friends with your knowledge of Belfast, give SoZo a rattle. It won't be your last visit.
Ham hock chowder £4.00
Bad ass Burrito £8.25
Sparkling water £1.50