Restaurant review: Bert's Jazz Bar, Belfast
16 Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ Tel: 028 9023 4888
Afternoon tea is a funny little meal that at first sight seems terribly Edwardian and English. When you look at the average intake of food by the English upper classes in the first half of the 20th century - lamb chops and potatoes among the classic breakfast dishes of the day, elevenses, lunch and, before dinner, afternoon tea - it's a wonder anyone got as far as supper.
Yet a quick look at the French, Spanish and Italians will show you that they too are as likely to be eating between meals as the English. In France it's called the "gout", which is normally consumed at about 4pm no matter where you find yourself: on the beach, in a metro station or in the office.
In Ireland, this phenomenon has gained traction in recent years because hotel managers have discovered that they can make a few pounds during that lull between lunch and dinner. The latest institution to introduce this is Bert's Jazz Bar on Belfast's Skipper Street, a very moody, plush and clubby place in which to spend an afternoon.
Here, afternoon tea features soup, sausage rolls and beetroot macaroons. Actually, the £25 tea features a good deal more. When the three-decker display stack arrives, your fears that small bites would never replace a proper meal are immediately allayed.
In Bert's you get a glass of prosecco as well as tea or coffee.
But it's the gazpacho soup, the signature savoury muffin and the sausage roll that put it head and shoulders above the other afternoon teas on offer in Belfast, where frequently soft and mouth-ulcering scones come with butter in small packets and jam from some factory in England. Here is something utterly different and quite brilliant.
Start at the top of the triple decker with a port glass-sized mouthful of gazpacho, which has all the chilly charms of its Spanish cousins. Tomato, cucumber, scallions and garlic are the pillars of a quality gazpacho, which is filtered and refiltered until it's as smooth and glossy as pouring cream. Bert's may not be quite so smooth, but it has all the right flavours and the ice-cold kick you want for a hot summer's day.
It leads on to its partner sharing the top deck, a square of smoked salmon on a little brick of crumbling dark rye bread topped with a slice of orange.
The quality sings out and there's nothing curled up about the bread, something you feel might happen at four in the afternoon.
Beneath is a more substantial spread including a dark purple-crimson macaroon filled with whipped goat's cheese.
The macaroon is very sweet and chewy and overwhelms the primula-like consistency cheese spread within. Beside it, however, is the savoury muffin. This appears to be a toasted slice of white pan loaf shaped into a cup and into which an egg and cheese have been introduced. It is a croque madame with all the French classic bistro flavours and the egg yolk is wonderfully runny. It's a great piece of cooking.
On the ground floor are scotch eggs and the sausage roll (referred to in the menu as "mini pork en croute"), accompanied by a little pan of tomato sauce.
These are simple and well executed. The egg is a quail's, light and airy, and the sausage roll is of the quality that it would have qualified to make an appearance in the "Great Northern Sassidge Roll" Twitter competition held last year. And just when you think it's all over, along come the sandwiches. These contain house-smoked chicken, bayonne ham and apple on a slice of ciabatta and some mature reblochon cheese with red onion marmalade on sourdough.
These are moist, full of flavour and heavenly with some tea. And still it's not over as the server brings petit fours to finish things off.
As afternoon teas go, this little experience deserves to become a destination event, the kind of thing around which you'd build the rest of your day. You'll have to put back your dinner that night because for all the delicacy, preciousness and good manners associated with afternoon tea, there is more packing in this than would fit in a horse box.
Berts savoury afternoon tea x 2......£50