Restaurant review: Bia Rebel, Al Gelato, and Root & Branch
Ormeau Road, Belfast
We are determined to bring our readers value for money, so this week I'm reviewing three places for the price of one. All three are within a few yards of each other, which means I am able for the first time to enact the Belfast Fantasy Menu I publish each week on Twitter: pick a dish from each of three restaurants and cafes and build your own perfect three course lunch or dinner.
I've always loved the Ormeau Road. There is something about the way it straddles town and country, offering you the feeling of being one leg in and one leg out of the city centre.
It's a cool, urban place on the one hand, yet it's got the park, the river and a bit of breathing space. Lately the Ormeau has become a bit more than a trunk road.
Orla Smyth's Kaffe O, Soul Food, L'Etoile and Macau have been there long enough now to provide solid foundations for more coffee joints and restaurants, and sure enough a Cafe Nero has just opened down from the Vineyard, one of Belfast's best wine merchants.
The Ormeau Road now hosts General Merchants, Shed, Yarn Cafe and Boden Park, which technically puts it on a par with Ballyhackamore - the world's greatest place to live. And this is a problem.
That crowd in Rosetta loves nothing more than a bit of distressed wood furniture, but really what they're after is raising the postcode value. And now it's inevitable thanks to the restaurant cluster.
Today focuses on three strategically important yet dirt cheap places to eat: Bia Rebel, Al Gelato and Root & Branch the cafe. On the face of it they appeal to all those in the socio-economic demographic spectrum from A to D1. But really, it's all A.
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The noodle bar Bia Rebel has moved to dry land by opening a restaurant without wheels. It is more of a takeaway joint frankly, but I did test it and sat down for my lunch there last week. It is uncomfortable - small rickety stools, hanging gales and too little room - but the noodles are sublime.
Bia Rebel is all about the ramen noodles, made fresh daily by Brian Donnelly. Great big bowls of the stuff come in varying degrees of spiced broths with vegetables, meats and herbs which are explosively tasty and wholesome.
I love Banh and Jumon, but Donnelly's ramen noodles have the edge, with flexible texture, big flavour and plenty of bite. Possibly the best of the choice is the Rebel Ramen, which features smoked paprika ground pork, chilli oil, sweetcorn, scallions and "secret house sauce". It's a tom yum kind of broth with plenty of deep flavours and heat, and the portions are generous.
The second course is in Al Gelato, a few doors down. Here, Ali McCauley is making ice cream as good as any we've had in Italy. The bright little parlour offers coffee and cakes, but this is a pukka ice-cream parlour first.
There is a watermelon sorbet which is full of perfumed resonance and a wonderful palate cleanser. I thought that was good until Ali brought out the dark chocolate sorbet.
This vegan-friendly treat packs a coco punch the likes of which you will never have tasted. The almost black chocolate is deep and lasting in the mouth.
There are other less grown up ice-creams too: milk chocolate, creme brulee, honeycomb (the big seller) and pistachio. It's easily the best ice cream in the city. If you can find anywhere better I'll buy you a £3.80 cone myself.
Finally, a walk back up the other side of the road will take you just past the Errigle Inn. In James Street is Root & Branch the tiny coffee shop so cool it makes Established look like a Centra. The coffee is so special and precious you can have a choice of the coffee beans: their own blend for this week, from Columbia, is the amazing Raquel Trujillo.
If you think all coffee talk is b*******, let Lisa explain what she's making for you. A £2.50 espresso will open a whole world of exotic adventure you never expected. Interestingly, Root & Branch is expanding into the next door premises so look out for their lunches after May 1.
There you have it. The holy trinity of the Ormeau Road, and not to be missed. Who says we don't look after you?
Rebel Ramen in Bia Rebel...................£8
Al Gelato large cone.......................£3.80
Espresso in Root & Branch.............£2.50