Restaurant review: The Pocket Café - can you believe it, they've reinvented the Ulster fry
69 University Road, Belfast. Tel: 07788 878525
Evidence that dirty, street-style hand food, chilli dogs, pulled pork sliders, sloppy Joe pizzas and all the rest of the chin-greasing, finger-sticking, sriracha-saturated, manners-destroying "meals" are gradually being replaced by the return of real, quality food is hard to deny.
While there is still a place for gratifyingly slobbery hangover eats, you need only take a look around the fast food outlets and lower cost bistros to see that the Ulster Fry, the burrito, the burger and the Asian are back and they're better, healthier (or less damaging than previously) and tastier than ever.
Just look at Banh and Jumon and their fabulously authentic plant-based south east Asian dishes, middle eastern Buba, the beautifully simple Pizza Boutique, or Boojum and Slums, or any of the high end restaurants like Ox, Deane's, James Street South et al who offer fabulous quality, brilliant value, nutritious and low cost (some as low as £6.50) lunches.
But the real changes are being made most dramatically in the brunch sector. Emerging in recent years through the likes of General Merchant's, Sozo and Cafe Conor, brunch has become a wonderful focal point for friends and family across the city for whom a weekend morning with toasted sourdough, smashed avocado and poached eggs is an occasion to regroup. The sourdough phenomenon was embraced by all as the next generation Ulster Fry, something in which you could indulge freely without the fear of blocking your arteries.
But now, the next stage is upon us and the first move to create Brunch 3.0 has been made by a tiny cafe in the Queen's Quarter called The Pocket. It may be the size of a doll's house, passes all the hipster interior design tests (bare brick, stripped timbers, cute, rickety furniture) and it has the requisite interactivity this generation so enjoys (customers endure the mildly clumsy ordering process: sit down, check out the menu, stand up, walk two feet to the till, order, sit down again).
But that menu, that food? It's so different to anything else you've seen, it's so well imagined and executed by chef Jonathan Dunne, you can be sure you're witnessing the birth of a new trend.
Waffles with cream, raspberries and white chocolate sound conventional enough. But it's not until you uncover the slightly savoury waffles and the hint of basil in the cream and the beautiful texture balance between the soft and crispy waffles and the back-of-the-throat richness of raspberry and basil that you sense you're entering a world of new flavours.
The pancakes with beetroot marinated smoked salmon again sounds run of the mill but when you've tasted the dry, salty and crispy beetroot rings, the baked beetroot leaves (yes, seriously, beetroot leaves!) and the soft lush pancakes which are blini-like only bigger you realise you have entered a new brunch era.
But brunch means brunch and the menu delivers all that you would expect: the Pocket Fry for instance, a nod to the One Which Started It All features poached eggs with Hannan's bacon, merguez sausages, sourdough, home made, fried brioche, spicy homemade tomato beans and creamy soy mushrooms and roast tomato; the Pea Pesto Avocado comes with summer minted peas, Fivemiletown goat's cheese, pea shoots and toasted sourdough dressed with lime yoghurt: or for the athletes there is the Buddha Bowl, an engaging and energy packing dish of slow cooked pork or tofu with Mexican pinto bean salsa, pearl barley, carrots, pickled red cabbage, yellow peppers and optional sriracha honey dressing.
I haven't had a decent merguez since I was busking in St Tropez in 1982 where an Algerian grill van made the world's greatest merguez dogs until I went into the Pocket. Dry, skinny, hot and bursting with deep and spicy harissa, £3 buys you two of them on the side; just saying.
The coffee is up to the standards too. Natural beans from El Salvador or washed from Nicaragua, the choice is yours. (The Salvadorean has a subtle floral hit which fits well with the very mildly bitter chocolate tones).
It's the care and attention, the precision and the detail which makes the Pocket stand out. Any wonder that Jonathan Dunne worked in some of Belfast's best kitchens.
It may be tiny, you'll feel you want to leave quickly after you've eaten because so many people will be after your table, but that's perfect. Have your brunch, the best in Belfast, don't linger and be happy the rest of the day. I was.
Pancakes and salmon £9.50
White chocolate waffles £8.50
Merguez side £3.00
Flat white £2.90
Vegan iced latte £3.90