Restaurant Review: Little wonder customers love this District of Belfast
District Coffee: Creating a successful food outlet is a tricky business, but this Ormeau Road cafe ticks all the right boxes, from good food to great service
The jaws of Christmas provide a good time to look back and reflect on things. For me, this mostly means a reassessment of the restaurant scene in Ireland. Were the bad reviews of 2018 deserved? Were the good reviews merited? And just how hopeless are my predictions? As the singing hotelier Bill Wolsey reminded a live audience recently, I described a recently opened restaurant as a sure-fire success a couple of months before it closed down.
The restaurant business is a constantly moving thing. Restaurant owners are shape-shifters who move with the times and bend with the trends, and the really successful ones do this while maintaining the best-quality food and service. Take District Coffee, the cool, urban cafe established by Richard Stitt. There's one in Stranmillis (Belfast's Fulham Road) and another on the Ormeau Road (the city's Edgeware Road).
Both Districts are perfectly suited to their, er, districts. The one in Stranmillis is subtly more formal, accounting for the number of academics and serious people who pop in for their two-hour flat white and raspberry scone. The one in Ormeau is much more beardy and mildly chaotic. Both are excellent and provide something few other cafes do: a real, unselfconscious and genuinely heart-felt passion to do well by their diners.
There's a fair bit of poise and posture in many cafés; they can reflect the clientele's love of being seen in the right places, or they can be the kind of place people go because they like the servers - forget the food, we'll be well looked after. District does everything well.
Stitt has a natural warmth and sense of hospitality. I first met him nearly 10 years ago, when he was serving tables in the Mourne Seafood Bar while doing an MSc in engineering. Sadly for the engineering sector, he developed a love for the restaurant business. Now look at him. Master of his own destiny and captain of his soul. It didn't come easy. He worked for a lot of good restaurateurs over the years, gaining experience and developing an instinct for what works and what doesn't.
For instance, his District brand is so well-thought out it looks like a multi-national trying to be artisanal. And that's not a bad thing. It raises the bar for independents on the Ormeau Road, many of which are already clever and successful - General Merchants, Root & Branch, Kaffe O).
But don't let the absence of second-hand crockery, North Dakota survivalist décor or masses of selvedge denim put you off. This is a pukka, home-made, thigh-slappin' kind of cafe where the food appeals to full-blooded sausage roll lovers a much as it does to vegans. The coffee is pretty good too.
The salads are lush, rich and so full of health-giving properties that you really believe you've completed some kind of perversely comfortable and enjoyable work-out when you're paying the bill.
Couscous, kale, scallions and rocket all feature here and there, chutneys are amazingly spiced and fruity, and that sausage roll … its brittle, crumbly golden shell, dappled and dashed with sesame seeds, is the size of a train driver's torch, the meat within moist, porky, salty and deep, made all the more exciting with fennel, garlic and chilli.
A vegetarian Mediterranean tart is biscuity and unctuous, and the chicken and chorizo pie is proper Desperate Dan.
District is very Belfast too. The menu may be hip and healthy but the tones, volumes and flavours are not going to put anybody with big appetites off either. Breakfasts are served until 3pm and your granolas, porridges, avocados and toasted sourdough bread all feature alongside perfectly poached eggs and smoked bacon.
In a highly congested market for coffees, breakfasts and lunches, District proves the point that brand strength is necessary to compete with Caffe Nero, Tim Horton's, Starbucks and the like. But frankly, it (and its co-independents mentioned earlier) beats them hands-down on the food and service.
Chicken pie £6.50
Sausage roll £3.75
Mediterranean pie £5.75
Coffee x 3 £7.80
District Coffee, 300 Ormeau Road, Belfast Tel: 028 9064 3603