Restaurant review: Panama Café in Belfast
McClintock Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9031 9420
The independent café phenomenon in Belfast may be the source of irritation to some (honestly, lads, if you're complaining because there are too many coffee shops, you need to throw a bag of slack at yourselves), but to many of us, it is evidence of an ever broadening and growing understanding of the uplifting quality of spending a short time drinking good tea and coffee in an environment which provides some comfort and solace from the busy world.
It also helps the wider public appreciate the importance of the hospitality and catering sector in terms of its role in our economy in creating jobs and by playing a central role in community and social cohesion.
The coffee shop culture is becoming as significant as the pub culture used to be. It is the gateway to grander restaurants for punters as well as to young recruits to the industry.
It is the trendy face, the fashionably youthful and stylish front for the notoriously tough and harsh hospitality sector.
Jane Hodgers has plenty of form in this field. She has been at the forefront of some of the great coffee shop and bar developments in Belfast, having launched General Merchants, Ciro and others.
Now Jane has secured her own investment and the money pumped into the creation of Panama Café has resulted in one of Belfast's most attractively understated, beautifully lit, warm and welcoming cafes. It is unusual for the abundance of natural light coming in from the high windows and the added attraction of the garden at the back, which you can admire and enjoy for the comfort of within just as well in the cold February days.
The food and drink offer are bang on trend. Flexitarians are going to love the mix and match vegan, vegetarian and meat dishes. The adviser spoke warmly of a previous visit during which she had a baked fry (an Ulster Bake?) which featured high-quality bacon and eggs and good-quality American-style sausage patties.
Also present in the £10 dish were mushrooms, roasted basil tomato, potato bread, soda bread, avocado, chorizo and black pudding crumb, bringing some much-needed, if occasionally maligned, exotic touches to our national breakfast of choice.
It was this which prompted my visit at lunchtime a few days later.
A salt beef reuben, a superfood salad and a sausage roll - not for me alone, I had company - arrived swiftly.
The lunch menu is short and sweet. There are savoury waffles, falafel tacos, sandwiches and soups. But if this sounds ordinary, it isn't. The salt beef reuben is generous, with layers of dark sliced beef accompanied by pickled gherkins and mustard creating a sedimentary bed of geological proportions between two equally thick toasted slices of rustic sourdough.
An accompanying salad is drizzled with a beautifully balanced and tangy dressing. The resulting experience is as good as you'd get in any of the reputable New York delis.
The salad with quinoa, pickled red cabbage, broccoli, rocket and courgette, enlivened even further by a chilli and lime dressing, could feed three. At £6 this is remarkable value, and you can take your leftovers home (believe me, you will).
As Panama opens at seven in the morning and closes at five, the lean towards high-protein, health-giving, clean food, which is something we apparently like to eat during daylight hours (we reserve the night for sinful and hedonistic pleasures like steaks, spuds and sweets), is evident. But it's not like going to a clinic, either.
There are as many traybakes and cakes as you'd find in a French Village bakery, but it's just that it all feels somehow imbued in a halo-like brightness which healthy people seems to emit.
A word of caution: the banana bread is addictively heavy, moist and bursting with flavours. If they bring it to you heated, it will be ruined. As a precaution, order it and ask for it not to be heated.
All those cool dudes from the BBC, RTE, Invest NI and government offices now have a very different kind of place to go to in the morning and at lunch time.
It's a great asset and it deserves to succeed.
Dante's sausage roll £4.75
Superfood salad £6
Baked fry £10
House salt beef reuben £8.50