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Restaurant review: we take a bite from General Merchants


General Merchants has a cool interior and a super menu to match its Bohemian aspirations

General Merchants has a cool interior and a super menu to match its Bohemian aspirations

Kevin Scott / Presseye

General Merchants has a cool interior and a super menu to match its Bohemian aspirations

Ormeau Road and Rosetta residents have been in a silent, but deadly, battle with Ballyhackamore and the Strandtown gang. The raging war between the two areas, one in the east and the other in the south, is over who gets to be the cool 'n' boho quarter of Belfast.

Both districts share remarkable social and architectural similarities. Rosetta people are notorious for their love of environmental impact assessments, vegetarian food and pure new wool garments from the Kilkenny Centre. They sometimes wear shawls.

Ballyhacksters and Strandtownies love Kevin McCloud's Grand Designs, a jolly good Chinese and Stand Up For The Ulster Men jackets for those cold easterly winds. They occasionally wear pashminas.

Both areas of Belfast are close to the city centre, have good bus links and are becoming increasingly expensive. They are attractive residential districts dominated by red brick and tree-lined avenues. And they both think they are superior to everywhere else.

I'd love to live in either, but the advisor has her heart set on an apartment in the city centre. No messing there.

Recently, this column outlined the definition of a cool 'n' boho district: it must contain a good bicycle shop, grocers, post office, chemists and butchers. It must also have at least four good restaurants in addition to a quality Chinese and Indian.

Ballyhack and Strandtown easily meet the criteria and qualify, but does the Ormeau Road? Good cafes abound, including Kaffe O and Kiln & Loom; Petit Ormeau, Shed and Soul Food are very good. But that was about it until the General Merchant 361 opened.

Having caused a storm of applause and approval in Stormont (Ballyhackamore East), the General Merchant 481 has been consistent since it opened last year. Now the Ormeau Road stands to benefit from the arrival of its sister operation.

Naturally, there have been queues out the street to get into the place, which is painfully cool and has just the right degree of distressed walls, furniture and servers to make it appear timeless. Yet only a week into its existence, it is already scoring very highly on service and food quality.

Any teething problems appeared to have been ironed out on the busy Bank Holiday Tuesday we went as a foursome, only to be joined, by chance, by friends.

This is not a big restaurant, yet the waiting times were down to 10 minutes. This is important to note because if you are like me, the first sign of a wait is kryptonite. Fear not, the waiting is brief.

Then there's the magnificent Jane Hodgers conducting affairs front of house with that perfect poise and genuine hospitality. If anyone can make order out of chaos, it's Jane.

There is a licence, so a very impressive selection of Farmageddon beers (yeah!) features among the wines. That White IPA is very hard to beat for crisp, dry, slightly spiced flavour, especially when served Ice Trucker-style just above freezing.

But, really, we're here for the Brisbane Breakfast. This is not unlike the Melbourne Breakfast over in Stormont. In fact, it's the same. A thick doorstep of sourdough toasted, then spread with Vegemite, half an inch of guacamole, a sprinkle of shot quinoa and possibly some cumin is the foundation bed for two perfectly poached hen's eggs and two slices of very good grilled back bacon.

A debate on the differences between Marmite and Vegemite risks causing massive ructions around the table, so the advisor quickly Googles a favourable compromise (there is no difference).

A beef sandwich is huge and visually stunning, with the dark golden dome of the buttermilk roll glossily reflecting the light. By the way, there is a corner high table under a skylight which you should try to hold out for.

Coffee is good, although two flat whites both came a bit cold. Short menus for breakfast and lunch are matched by short waiting times for service. Yet this is not a rushed lunch joint. And the good news is they start opening for dinner soon.

So, has Ormeau pipped Ballyhackamore in the cool 'n' boho contest? Not yet. But Ormeau has something Ballyhack doesn't: two fabulous pubs in the Errigal and the Pavilion.

By the way, the phone number above is the Newtownards Road branch, as there was no phone at time of going to press.

The bill:

Soup £3.95

Beef sandwich £6.50

Brisbane brekkie (x2) £17.00

General breakfast £7.50

Sourdough and bacon £5.95

Green tea £2.50

Farmageddon White IPA £4.25

Total £47.65

Belfast Telegraph