Cyprus Avenue, 228-230, Upper Newtownards Rd, Belfast. Tel: 028 9065 6755, www.cyprusavenue.co.uk
East Belfast has always been the straight-laced, hardworking and disciplined district. For decades, the east was home to dozens of neighbourhood industries including Harland and Wolff, Bombardier (now Spirit Aerosystems), Thales, Stormont and loads of government offices which employed thousands of people. While many of these public sector and manufacturing entities remain, a quiet and for some, disturbing, transformation has been under way. In recent years people in the east have started going to bed late and grow their hair long. The surest sign of the end of times by decadence and hedonism has been the emergence of Ballyhackamore.
Ballyhackamore suddenly and inexplicably became the go-to destination for cool young ones who wanted to eat and drink anything other than bacon and boiled cabbage and brown lemonade. Within the last 15 years the area has seen a mushrooming of restaurants such as Alden’s (now Neil’s Hill), Il Pirata, Graze, Acapulco, Bistro Este and a good few more.
As a result, Ballyhackamore is defining the new east Belfast. Hugging both sides of the Upper Newtownards Road more or less from Cyprus Avenue restaurant all the way to Il Pirata, the shops, Indians, Chineses and now Pizza Express and Café Nero, Ballyhackamore’s 400 yard stretch is ‘the strip’.
Chef Richard McCracken joined the party in 2016 when he opened Cyprus Avenue (228 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast). This restaurant soon grew in surface area as well as reputation and despite or perhaps thanks to Covid restrictions, there is now an ample street terrace with comfortable seats and robust weather proofing for when the weather inevitably turns for the worst.
A trip to the terrace last week was blessed with lunch time sunshine and three of us let ourselves be willingly sucked into Ballyhack’s vortex of happiness.
The menu is a fair reflection of McCracken’s ambitions. On today’s specials blackboard are Yakitori monkfish kebabs with shaoxing wine dressing and chicken noodle salad; pigeon teriyaki avec Mrs Craig’s crispy noodle donut; ravioli of BBQ pork smoked and spiced bone broth and pineapple. I order crispy harissa spiced squid with mechouia, a traditional Tunisian grilled vegetable salad featuring charred onion, tomato, lemon, garlic and peppers. For a starter so wholesome, it is remarkably weighty.
The pigeon breast is tender, firm and just the right side of rare and Mrs Craig’s noodle donut is a bird’s nest of a thing, all crunchy and savoury, the perfect foil to the meat.
Elsewhere on the table are monkfish kebabs which my learned friend avows to be the best she has had. Monkfish is a challenge even to the most experienced chef. Too long or too little on the heat and you end up with cotton wool or cartiledge-like slipperiness. Here, on a skewer, is a fist-sized chunk of monkfish which has been bathed in the Shaoxing rice wine and accompanied by a mound of savoury chicken noodles straight from the wok. It is extraordinary for its harmony and layers of flavours and textures.
A pearl barley paella is half rich bouillabaisse and half “symphony of the seas” as they used to call a plate of crab claws, mussels, scallops and what ever else is in the fish fridge.
It’s lunch time and we are getting the bill to head back to work when we spot baked Alaska, raspberry and white chocolate and a smoked chocolate and passionfruit tart. With FOMO setting in fast, all three are brought to the table, each a magnificent, summer act of defiance. The baked Alaska is text book. The cheesecake is high-precision and perfectly executed while the smoked chocolate tart sits protected in its brittle pastry all smooth and creamy. Its what you need to get the rest of the afternoon done.
Harissa squid £7
Pearl barley paella £7
Desserts x 3 £21