Restaurant review: Brunch and lunch station raises bar for street food
Review: Output Espresso Food Social 479 Lisburn Road, Belfast
The irrepressible Gary McIlDowney is at it again. This time, the brains (and brawn) behind Slims, the healthier alternative to dirty food, has opened a new sit-down street food outlet called Output Espresso Food Social. On the site of former burger palace Rocket & Relish on the Lisburn Road, Output is a bright, breezy and youthful place with all the right modern references: very cool staff, vegan dishes and kombucha. Like any self-respecting, brand-conscious, marketing-aware, lifestyle enhancing enterprise, it even has a slogan: Sit back, relax, we've got you (my punctuation).
I invited Peter Nichol, the legendary framer whose workshop is nearby, thinking it would make life easier for him. It only occurred to me as we both walked into the place that perhaps he was fed up going there and sure isn't it all a bit too young and boppy for the likes of us?
How mistaken I was. Youthful maybe, but discriminatory not at all. I love places like this because the older you get, the less daily contact you have with your children, their friends, their music and fashion and you need to be able to keep your finger on the pulse somehow.
Output is just the place because it's not up itself, everyone is welcome and the teens still think it's brilliant (I did my research).
Output is a breakfast, brunch 'n' lunch station with a menu that presses all the buttons.
The Output breakfast includes sausage, sugar pit bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, poached egg, home-made beans and brioche; Smores (vegan) feature sourdough, fudge, cacao, hazelnut and marshmallow; breakfast pancakes will be equally glamorous with their cornflakes, candy floss and ice cream.
But the more grown-up stuff is equally entertaining and lush: salt beef comes in a crusty roll with the classic mustard, cheese and pickle; the short rib hash includes thyme rosti, egg, hollandaise, crispy shallot, kale and jus; and the bean stew (vegan) comes with sourdough and smoked tomato.
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Peter's "street food chicken" comes in a cardboard box, naturally. He's quite excited by this and with an artist's eye appreciates the surprise factor (we're both the kind of age when tin plates and jam jar cups still amaze us). More significantly he praises the crispy buttermilk chicken, its Cajun aioli, lime and addictive shoestring chips for the flavours, textures and quantity.
The thing about great street food is that not only is it not meant to be terribly good for your health but you also want to eat tons of it.
I hadn't had a burger for some weeks, so when Peter Hannan's appeared here with bacon jam, smoked cheese, fried egg and more of those shoestrings, my resistance was low. Burgers are personal. Niall McKenna's are incredibly tasty but too compressed, Five Guys are also good but possibly too crumbly. Peter Hannan's strikes the kind of balance that suits me: light, firm, beefy and plentiful.
Whoever is in the Output kitchen is well up to the brief. It sounds easy enough to cook this kind of food, but getting it so absolutely right is the challenge. There has been much care and consideration given to this menu and the execution of the dishes is exemplary.
It means that the experience, which starts at the front door and includes a casual but warm greeting (give us a few minutes and we'll have a table ready for you), the engagement between server and customer at the early Q&A moments (is it real candy floss?), the environment, the seating, the lighting, and all the rest of it, is positive, strong and on-message. The food matches all this. Output therefore is more likely than any other attempt to make this site work.
Output burger ................................... £12
Street food chicken ......................... £12
Espresso x 2 ....................................£5.40